Real Food Encyclopedia | Garlic

When it comes to garlic, people either can’t live with it or they can’t imagine life without it. For a bulb that fits neatly into the palm of one’s hand, garlic inspires deep emotions across the spectrum worldwide.

Known as the “stinking rose,” garlic figures into the lore, popular culture, history and cuisines of many cultures from around the world. In the kitchen, it is a basic building block of flavor, the foundation of sauces, soups, marinades, spice rubs and curry pastes to name just a few. And what would a Caesar salad be without garlic?

Garlic is among the oldest cultivated crops, dating to ancient Egypt and China. It’s mentioned in many ancient texts, demonstrating its important role in emerging cultures and amazing lasting power for millennia.

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Fun Facts about Garlic: 

  • In his book, “Mediterranean Vegetables,” culinary scholar Clifford A. Wright notes that the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote of Egyptian pyramids with inscriptions referring to the garlic that pyramid workers ate during construction.
  • In India, garlic has long been revered for health benefits but considered a no-no in the kitchen by monks and Brahmins (who see it as overstimulating and a distraction from meditation) and Jains (who oppose the violence of pulling garlic out of the ground).
  • California is the top garlic-producing state, accounting for more than 90 percent of this country’s commercial garlic haul, most of which is grown in the central part of the state.
  • The great James Beard was a major force behind popularizing garlic in this country, when he shared his recipe for Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic in his 1974 book, “Beard on Food.” Nearly 45 years later, the recipe remains legendary.

What to Look for When Buying Garlic

If you remain unconvinced about shopping at a farmers’ market or farm stand, in-season garlic might be the game changer. Locally sourced garlic won’t just be fresher and more robust in flavor; it will have a distinctive personality, depending on which of the many hundreds of varieties the grower has brought to market. At the supermarket, it’s nothing but generic one-note bulbs; at the farmers’ market, it’s a symphony.

Green garlic should be just that: resembling a miniature leek, it has a light green stalk and white bulb at the base with darker green tops. Stalks should be firm and free of discoloration and moisture.

Fully mature head garlic should have a paper-thin skin that covers all of its cloves, which ideally are firm and free of mold, bruises or any other dings. The tightness of the skin will vary depending on variety as well as age of the bulb (you’ll notice that the skin loosens as garlic ages).

Sustainability of Garlic

Pesticides and Garlic

Conventional garlic is not on the Environmental Working Group Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which means it’s neither a model pesticide-free choice nor a major offender.

Over the past few decades, garlic’s toll on the environment has grown as the result of the globalization of agriculture. Until the early 1990s, most supermarket garlic came from California. Now more than half of all bulbs on US grocery shelves comes from China, which fulfills 90 percent of U.S. garlic imports. (Argentina and Mexico fill in the gap.) The overseas garlic might be cheaper but comes with a heavier carbon footprint, courtesy of the all the oil needed to ship it to market.

If you’re concerned about these issues, pick up garlic from a local source instead (and ask about their growing methods), or try growing your own.

Garlic Seasonality

Green garlic, which is by and large a farmers’ market ingredient, makes its debut in late spring. By July, you’ll start seeing garlic heads at your favorite local food shopping spots, until the first frost or inventory runs out. Garlic scape lovers: Keep an eye out for those curlicues starting in June.

Eating Garlic

Storing Garlic

At room temperature, head garlic can last for months.  It does not like humidity, which will invite rot – so keep out of the refrigerator. Green garlic, on the other hand, should be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in a towel or paper bag, and used within a week.

Cooking with Garlic

Pro tips:

  • To peel garlic, pry away the ends with a paring knife or you can press on a clove with the flat side of a wide knife. There’s also the bowl trick.
  • As head garlic ages and dries (and shrinks), its flavor intensifies. It will also sprout as if preparing for the dormant months of winter, whether or not it’s in the ground. That little green sprout (also known as a germ) imparts a bitterness, so it’s a good idea to pry out before cooking.

The optimal time to enjoy raw preparations of head garlic (pestopersilladepico de galloallioli) is during the summer, when it’s newly cured and robust.

When you want the flavor of raw garlic but not the texture (vinaigrette immediately comes to mind), make garlic paste: Peel and coarsely chop a clove of garlic. Sprinkle sea salt (or your favorite coarse salt) on top.  Hold a chef’s knife in your dominant hand and lay it flat on top of the garlic. Place the palm of your other hand on top of the knife and press down on the garlic as if you were smearing it onto the cutting surface, until the garlic is pulverized and paste-like.

Garlic burns quickly, so when cooking in oil with other aromatics such as onions or peppers, add it last in the series. When cooking a pot of beans, a whole clove of garlic adds a layer of flavor and can save the day when you’re low on herbs and spices.

Here’s a great tip for garlic from James Peterson in his “The Vegetables: A to Z:” A lot of recipes make garlic bread unnecessarily complicated by suggested that chopped garlic be combined with melted butter and the mixture the brushed on the toasted bread. The easiest method is simply to toast the bread, rub each slice with a peeled garlic clove, and then just spread with butter or brush with olive oil. One medium garlic clove is enough for about six slices of bread.

Garlic Nutrition

Long before it became a culinary star, garlic was used foremost as medicine and considered a panacea for sundry ailments, from impotence to smallpox, parasites to poor digestion. Although it’s a good source of Vitamin B6, C, calcium, potassium and even protein, you’d have to eat a cup of garlic to enjoy those benefits (1 cup contains more than 8 grams of protein, for example). But where garlic shines and what continues to intrigue scientists is its repository of anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative sulfuric compounds being studied for treating heart disease, controlling the common cold and lowering the risk of certain types of cancer. Scientists continue to study allicin and alliin (just two of garlic’s many disease-fighting sulfur compounds) and their potential benefits in treating both arthritis patients and those suffering from arteriosclerosis.