Everything You Need to Know About Garlic

Long ago, my mom used to tell me that you could make just about anything taste good with enough garlic. As with many things, my mother was exactly right. Today, when my friends come to me for cooking advice, I often tell them not to cook with garlic entirely. After all, you can’t really be a good cook if you can’t challenge yourself to make delicious food without using garlic. That is to say, until you stop using something like garlic as a crutch in your cooking, you’ll never hone your more technical cooking skills to make your best food.

Conversely, over the course of honing your technique in this way, there are certainly things to understand about garlic that are critical to moving your cooking to the next level. It’s perplexing in a way, but to be a better cook, you must stop using garlic. But as you grow more comfortable with cooking, you will start to use garlic better and in a more refined manner.

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The Science of Flavor

You can’t start to understand garlic until you understand how its flavors work. The chemical we associate with the flavor of garlic, allicin, strangely is not directly produced in garlic cloves. Rather, allicin from garlic is created from the reaction of two separately occurring chemicals, alliin and the enzyme alliinase. These chemicals are each found in different parts of the microscopic cells of garlic. The act of chopping, mincing or crushing raw garlic is what allows the two chemicals to come together, react and form allicin, the garlic flavor. The finer the chop or mince, or rigorous the crush, results in a more intense garlic flavor because more alliin and alliinase are able to come together and react.

Article 005 - Chemical Reaction and Extraction - Allicin

This is why, for example, roasting whole garlic results in less intense garlic flavor. Although during roasting, cells break down under heat and some of the alliin and alliinase manage to come together to form allicin, not to the same extent as chopping, mincing or crushing the raw stuff. First of all, heat may break down some of the alliinase, ultimately resulting in less allicin. This is why raw garlic always has more intensity, similarly prepared as cooked garlic. Thus, the key to maximizing garlic flavor is to break more raw garlic cells (before the garlic has ever touched heat) and release more reactive alliin and alliinase through ever more thorough chopping, mincing or crushing.

There are also other important chemical reactions in garlic, however. That deliciously complex sweetness in roasted garlic is actually the result of a series of other chemical reactions. The reactions start between the enzyme amylase and the natural starch in garlic. Amylase breaks down the starch into simple sugars, which make the garlic slightly sweet.

Article 005 - Chemical Reaction and Extraction - Amylase

After the sugar is released, all the key compounds are present in garlic to undergo one of the most delicious chemical reactions in all of food: The Maillard reaction

The Best Things in Life Are Brown

After the sugars are created, with continued moderate heating, the Malliard reaction may then take place, ultimately creating thousands of complex and delicious new flavor compounds. This is the reaction that occurs when browning garlic or even meat on the stove. Although the Maillard reaction is far too complicated to go into in specific detail, basically the reaction involves heat, water, sugar and proteins. The proteins are first broken down by heat into amino acids. Sugar then reacts with the amino acids, which eventually form molecules called ketosomines. These, in turn, undergo hydrolysis, breaking down into the varied and complex flavor molecules which we are after. Although the subtle specifics are not entirely relevant to producing a Maillard reaction in cooking, two aspects of the reaction are critical: Heat and time.

In cooking meat, for example, heat and time are fickle companions. Cooking with high heat over a short duration will result in beautifully browned meat. This is because a Maillard reaction is taking place only on the surface of the meat, adding those complex flavors, all the while only lightly cooking the inside of the meat, leaving the juices and flavors intact. Since the Maillard reaction typically only occurs at temperatures between about 110 to 165 °C (230 to 329 °F), heating meat to such high temperatures would result in a dry, flavorless result. Who wants to eat a steak cooked to a scorching 125 °C, more than twice the temperature of a typical medium rare? In garlic, however, we have no such considerations. We can produce a Maillard reaction inside and out, resulting in garlic that is a total flavor bomb, but only if we manage our temperature and time just right.

How to Brown Garlic

There are only three really good ways of producing the Maillard reaction in garlic, as it turns out. One is in the oven at temperatures around 150 °C (302 °F). This is a good method because everyone has an oven. It’s bad, however, because ovens don’t usually heat as evenly as you’d want for this sort of cooking. In a crunch, you can get the results you need, but the best way to produce a Maillard reaction at temperature is definitely in a pressure cooker. In a pressure cooker set to a pressure of about 15 pounds per square inch, water has a boiling point of about 120 °C (248 °F). That’s right in the range of our Maillard reaction. At this temperature you can draw out your reaction, concentrate your garlic and, with even heating, produce beautiful Maillard browning in garlic, both inside and out.

There is also a magical third way of producing Maillard in garlic and that is the famed black garlic. This is done through fermenting garlic and I will touch on this method at a later time. The science and safety of fermenting is its own series of articles which I will not embark on at this time. But stay patient, I’ll get around to it soon enough. But let’s start cooking!

Have a question? Ask me anything!

Pressure Cooker Garlic Confit

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Ingredients

1 head (about 75 g) of garlic, cloves separated and peeled, with each clove cut into quarters
75 g (90 mL or about 3 fl oz) of mild flavored extra virgin olive oil
2 g (about 1 tbsp) mixed dried herbs and spices (generally, I recommend a blend of thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil and crushed red pepper although you may vary these for your recipe and to your taste)

Preparation

  1. Place all ingredients in a small, glass mason jar, with the lid slightly loose to allow airflow. Place mason jar in a pressure cooker and fill with tap water up to the level of the contents of the jar. Seal the cooker and cook per cooker instructions for high pressure for two hours.
  2. Unseal cooker and carefully remove mason jar. Close the lid of the jar tightly and let cool on the countertop before refrigerating. Contents will keep for two to three months without opening and two to three weeks after opening. Mixture can be thoroughly crushed and used to flavor stews, in pasta dishes or as a spread atop toasted bread with some added flaked salt.

Oven Crisped Garlic

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Ingredients

1 head (about 75 g) of garlic, cloves separated and peeled, with each clove slivered width-wise into thin slices
75 g (90 mL or about 3 fl oz) of mild flavored extra virgin olive oil
2 g (about 1 tbsp) mixed dried herbs and spices (generally, I recommend a blend of thyme, rosemary, oregano, basil and crushed red pepper although you may vary these for your recipe and to your taste)

Preparation

  1. Preheat oven to 150 °C (302 °F). Combine the sliced garlic and olive oil in an oven safe ramekin and ensure the garlic is entirely submerged in the oil. If required to fully submerge garlic, add just enough additional oil. When the oven is at temperature, add the ramekin to the oven. When the garlic is at a steady fry in the oil, about 10 minutes, give the mixture a careful but thorough stir. Fry for an additional 5 minutes and add desired herbs and spices, carefully stirring to fully integrate. At this point the garlic should start to brown slightly but evenly. Continue to fry in the oven until the oil has tinged to the color of the herb and spice blend (usually brown or red-brown), about 10 additional minutes.
  2. Separate the garlic and herbs and spices from the oil with a fine mesh strainer such as a chinois. Use garlic, herbs and spice mixture immediately, preferably as a topping or garnish on pasta, roasted vegetables or meats. Store oil in an airtight container in a dark place. It will keep for two to three weeks at room temperature. Oil can be used to season salad dressings or as an infused oil in cooking.

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