For many home cooks, garlic is a vexing subject. While its flavor is bar none, I will conjecture that most people don’t enjoy chopping it or being left with its tenacious, clingy odor. However, learning how to deal with all of garlic’s unique qualities will help any home cook develop a deeper appreciation for this flavor powerhouse. Having taught recreational cooking classes for 15 years, I have heard every conceivable garlic query. Here are the top 5 questions that bubble up during any given cooking class when garlic is on the ingredient list (and when is it not?).
Pick up a head of garlic and give it a squeeze. The head should feel solid, with virtually no movement among the tightly-packed cloves and tough, papery skins. As garlic ages, the skins grow brittle and the cloves dry out and shrink, leaving behind hollow spaces, causing them to shift when you squeeze them. And don’t buy any garlic with little green shoots sprouting up out of the cloves. That fellow is way past his prime.
Smash it! Take the flat edge of your knife and lay it on top of the clove, smashing it with the side of your fist or palm of your hand. Or grab a bottle of vinegar or oil and use that to bludgeon the clove. This will loosen the tight grip the skin has on the clove, allowing you to pick up and discard the skin in one piece. Please note that this smashing business shouldn’t lead to shards of garlic flying this way and that; a light crush will do!
Those green shoots are an indication of age. Like all bulbs (garlic, onions, and tulips alike), they will start to regenerate by sending up a green shoot to start anew. The shoots are harmless to eat, but usually have a bitter flavor unlike the sweet pungency for which garlic is beloved. Just slice the clove in half and remove the center shoot before using.
If you are going to cook that garlic, please don’t. A garlic press smashes garlic to smithereens, which is terrific for raw applications (think salad dressing or garlic butter) but will brown much too quickly in a hot pan. Browned (and possibly burnt) garlic is far from the bright, sharp, and pungent flavor that drives us to use garlic in the first place.
Garlic’s essential oils are sticky, so they are not easily removed. Rubbing your hands against something stainless steel (the faucet, some steel tongs) under COLD running water for about 10 seconds will neutralize the smelly compounds (thanks to a chemical reaction between steel and garlic’s stinky molecules). Good old hot water and soap and the abrasive side of a sponge will also dislodge the sticky oils.
Got any more garlic questions? Go ahead and ask in the comments!