We’re cooking with a lot more garlic than we used to. According to the Food Institute, Americans now consume more than 2 pounds of garlic (14 to 18 heads) a year, up from 1 pound a decade ago. With all this garlic to peel and chop, it’s good to know how to handle it.
Buy firm, plump, heavy heads with tight, unbroken papery skins. The heavier the garlic, the fresher, juicier, and better tasting it is. Also, large, full heads tend to last longer than small ones. Avoid garlic with mold, green sprouts, or sunken or shriveled cloves—all signs of deterioration.
Store garlic in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place (not the refrigerator). Keep it in a dark drawer or container to help keep it from sprouting or drying out quickly. Discard garlic if it feels empty or soft.
To separate cloves from a head, use a little pressure. I like to set the whole head, root side down, on a flat surface and press on the neck with the heel of my hand; a few cloves break off under light pressure. Some people find that pressing on the side of the head or the root end works better. Very fresh, tight heads need more pressure than older ones.
To peel a clove of garlic, first break the skin. Set the clove on a cutting board and cover it with a flat side of a chef’s knife. With the heel of your hand, apply light pressure to the knife blade—enough to split the skin, but not so much to crush the clove (unless, of course, you want it smashed). You can also lightly twist a clove to loosen the skin or slice off the root end, which will let you peel off the skin as you would an onion. An easy way to peel cloves is to use a garlic roll—a soft, rubber tube that quickly and neatly removes the papery peel. A rubber jar opener works well too.
If you have to peel a lot of cloves, drop them in boiling water for the count of ten. After draining, the softened peels will slip off more easily.
Once the garlic is peeled, cut away any brown spots and trim the root end if it’s dried or hard. Garlic that’s been stored too long may begin to send up green sprouts. Some cooks find the sprout bitter, and they cut the clove in half and pry out the sprout with a paring knife; others like the tender texture and assertive character of the green sprout. The bottom line is that once a clove has sprouted, it tends to be more shriveled and pungent, lacking some of the juicy, aromatic flavor of garlic in its prime.
The volatile compounds that give garlic its characteristic pungency aren’t released until it’s chopped or crushed. Since these flavors begin to dissipate and change once exposed to air, last minute before using. If you must chop garlic ahead, drizzle it with oil to help slow the oxidation and deterioration of flavor and refrigerate it.
Mince, chop, or crush?
Whether to mince, chop, or crush depends on the dish. For uncooked recipes, like aïoli or Caesar salad, thoroughly crush garlic or make it into a paste so the flavor is evenly distributed. A paste is also best for smooth-textured dishes, like soups and sauces. For quick-cooking, chunky dishes, like pasta sauces and sautéed vegetables, finely mince or thinly slice garlic to get the best release of flavor. For long-cooking braises and stews, roughly chop or thickly slice garlic so it slowly melds with the other ingredients. Garlic’s flavor and pungency change dramatically as it cooks: the more it cooks, the mellower it gets.
To mince garlic evenly, cut it as you would an onion (see the photos below). To make a garlic paste, crush the garlic and chop it finely with a little salt.
Remember that minced garlic burns easily and becomes bitter, but there are ways to avoid this. Since garlic is often sautéed with onions, and onions take longer to soften, sauté the onions first until they’re cooked through. Only then should you toss in the minced garlic and let it cook for a minute or so.