Garlic Basics

A roundup of smart tips about using garlic. Beware―it’s pretty strong stuff.

  • Jane Kirby

Buying

There are more than 20 varieties of garlic, but the most common are strong, white-skinned American garlic and the milder, purple-streaked Italian and Mexican types. Elephant garlic, so called because each bulb is about four times the size of American or Mexican varieties, is also a common type but is technically in the onion family. It's available year-round. The other types can be purchased loose or packed two to a box. To select the freshest, most flavorful garlic, look for a dry, solid bulb that is plump, compact, and heavy. Resist the urge to buy peeled or chopped garlic; the flavors are harsher and stronger and will make your pesto taste more like pesticide. Plus, the jars will make a refrigerator reek.

Storing

Keep garlic in a cool, dark spot. The refrigerator is fine, but the freezer isn't; it will ruin the texture and turn the flavor from aromatic to acrid. Stored properly, garlic bulbs can last up to eight weeks. Garlic that sprouts can still be used; just remove the bitter green shoots.

Peeling

The easiest way to peel a garlic clove is to place it under the flat side of a broad, heavy knife and bang it with your fist. The papery skin will slip right off. There is also an entire shelf of tools at the gourmet store devoted to peeling and preparing the clove, and it's worthwhile to check out three of them. The first, a garlic press, can eliminate the peeling step, although you won't get as much pulp as when you press peeled cloves. When you need whole, peeled garlic cloves, try a rubber cannoli. Drop a clove in one end, rub the tube on the countertop, and a perfectly stripped clove slides out the other side. (A rubber jar opener works, too.) Another handy tool to have in the utensil drawer is a garlic slicer. Like a mini mandoline, it creates wispy thin slices of garlic, which, when sauteed in olive oil, make a delicious garnish on vegetables and in salads.
 

Chopping

If you need just a clove or two, peel the clove, slice it in half lengthwise, and mince with a small paring knife. The more you mince, the more sulfur compounds you'll release and the more garlic flavor you'll add to your dish. To chop or mince multiple cloves, let the blade of a food processor start turning, then drop the cloves through the feed tube. If you put the cloves in before turning on the machine, they'll ricochet and remain relatively intact.

The Smell That Lingers

Ingested garlic stays with you because it contains oils that get into your blood and lung tissue and remain in your system long after it's been consumed. The remedies―chewing parsley, taking chlorophyll tablets―sound good but don't work. George Preti, Ph.D., of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, an organization that studies the science of taste and smell, explains, "You may have success in temporarily covering the odor, but once it's in your system, nothing but time will eliminate it. So enjoy it."

Chopping garlic is another story, though: The smell will come off  if you simply rub your fingers on stainless steel. Stainless "soap" bars are sold for this purpose, but a steel sink or saucepan works just as well.

If You Run Out of Garlic...

There's no substitute for fresh, but the dried stuff will do in a pinch. A medium-size clove of fresh garlic is the equivalent of:
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder