Garlic is a must-have kitchen staple that can easily transform any bland dish into a flavor powerhouse. Even though we cook with garlic all the time—adding it to everything from Garlic Cheddar Biscuits to Tomato Garlic Chutney—it’s not always as straightforward an ingredient as you might expect. So the next time you reach for those pungent cloves, keep a few tips in mind to avoid some common pitfalls:
Mistake 1: Buying Old or Stale Cloves at the Market
First things first: To make the perfect garlicky dish, you’ll want to start with the perfect head of garlic. Ideally, you’ll find the freshest garlic during its peak season, which runs from midsummer to early fall. When at the market, look for bulbs that appear firm, are bright and white (although a light purple hue is also acceptable), and have a tightly bound tip. When you give the bulb a gentle squeeze, it should feel solid and dry, and not shriveled on the sides. Though still edible, sprouted garlic may indicate that the bulb was not properly stored or may already be past its prime, so avoid any heads with little green shoots poking through.
Mistake 2: Storing Garlic Incorrectly
To get the most out of your garlic, store it in a dry, dark place with plenty of room-temperature air circulation. The air will help prevent the garlic from sprouting or spoiling too soon. You can also keep garlic in a paper or mesh bag to help maintain the dry, cool environment. If stored correctly, garlic can last for several months. However, once you start removing cloves, it will spoil more quickly. Though tempting, avoid refrigerating or freezing garlic at all costs, as it can ruin both the texture and flavor.
Mistake 3: Peeling Garlic the Wrong Way
If you have loads of garlic to peel, say for a chicken recipe with 40 cloves, you may want to rely on a savvy peeling hack to cut down your prep time. Place a garlic bulb in between two stainless steel bowls, rim to rim, to create an egg-like dome and shake the bowls rapidly for about 30 seconds. Once you’ve tossed the garlic sufficiently, they should naturally release from their shell.
Though this trick can be loud and may take longer than 30 seconds depending on the size of your bulb, it’s an effective method for quickly peeling a larger batch of garlic all at once. You can also use a glass mason jar for this method instead. Or if you’re more of a traditionalist, smashing the garlic with the flat side of your trusted knife will always do the trick.
Mistake 4: Prepping Garlic Incorrectly
When prepping garlic, you want to be mindful of the cooking method it will undergo. When garlic is crushed or chopped, it releases a compound called allicin, which results in the distinct garlic taste and smell we obsess over. The more you chop or cut garlic, the more allicin gets released, and the more pungent the flavor. So if you’re looking for a mellower hint of garlic (say, to season a sauce), roughly chop your cloves into large pieces, which will just lightly infuse the dish.
On the other hand, if your goal is to add a strong, garlicky bite to your recipe, grate your garlic with a Microplane, which will maximize the amount of allicin. Additionally, whichever form of garlic you choose for your dish, make sure the pieces are consistent in shape and size. This will help ensure that the garlic cooks uniformly, with no bits left under- or overcooked. And on that note...
Mistake 5: Overcooking Your Garlic
Despite what you may have heard, it isn’t necessary to sauté your garlic first in a pool of overly hot oil to release its flavoring potential; in fact, this risks burning it, which there’s no coming back from. Instead, save your garlic for later on in the cooking process, like when you’re building your sauce, almost ready to add a liquid, or once the more time-consuming proteins or vegetables have already cooked. This will let the garlic render and release all its magic without burning to a bitter crisp.
Mistake 6: Thinking All Types of Garlic Products Are Created Equal
Though you may be tempted to opt for pre-peeled, pre-minced, or even tubed garlic paste, it’s best to stick to a plain and simple, fresh head of garlic for the most authentic flavor. Once garlic has been chopped or removed from its original bulb, the aroma and taste starts to change, weakening over time. It’s believed that the allicin begins to mellow out just a few hours after being exposed, and it’s difficult to preserve once altered or packaged.
Additionally, pre-minced garlic found in a jar is oftentimes mixed with preservatives like vinegar, citric acid, or even phosphoric acid, which can drastically manipulate the original taste. If you’re looking for the hot, pungent flavor of raw garlic, you’ll most definitely want to stick to the real deal and save garlic products like powder and paste for other uses that call for a softer or more neutral garlic presence.
These tips may spare you from some kitchen mishaps, but unfortunately we can’t save you from the imminent bad breath! Make sure to share your garlic-loving secrets in the comments below.
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