Plenty of small but mighty ingredients probably are hanging out in your kitchen. Cinnamon sticks, dried chile peppers, cardamom and herbs are all proof that size is definitely not proportionate to flavor.
Perhaps the MVP of the culinary featherweights is garlic. Easy to buy, easy to store and easy to incorporate into a wide variety of dishes, this little bulb can do it all.
“It’s such a simple way to get a lot of flavor. It’s a simple bulb,” says Kate Winslow, who wrote “Onions Etcetera: The Essential Allium Cookbook” with her husband, Guy Ambrosino. It’s complex, too. When raw, it’s sharp, spicy and pungent. But cooking garlic gives way to sweetness, even caramelization.
Want to make the most of your garlic? Here are some helpful tips and a few clever hacks.
Know what you’re getting
Garlic has two main subspecies: soft-neck, with large cloves around a center of (annoying) smaller cloves, and hard-neck, with bigger cloves in a single ring around a woody stalk, the cookbook authors write. You’re most likely to find hard-neck at the farmers market. Don’t bother with elephant garlic, which is more closely related to leeks, boasting a mild onion flavor that is not a suitable stand-in for regular garlic.
Try to get the freshest garlic. The taste gets “funkier” and stronger as it ages, Winslow says. The cloves should be plump and juicy, not wrinkled. Ideally, they won’t have a green sprout running through the middle. But if that’s the only garlic you have, just pop it out with the tip of your knife and move on.
Store garlic in a spot with good air circulation; cool and dark is helpful, too.
There are plenty of ways to accomplish this somewhat tedious task. Food Editor Joe Yonan’s favorite is the good ole knife smash. Winslow and Ambrosino agree, as do I. The other methods involve more steps, equipment and sometimes, more mess. Garlic skin flying everywhere is one downside of shaking all the cloves in a bowl, the couple say. If you have to peel a lot, as in several heads worth, the microwave or skillet might be worth considering. Otherwise, for everyday garlic tasks, stick with the trusty knife.
“It’s a little fiddly,” Winslow says of peeling. Even so, she advises against pre-peeled (and minced) garlic, the flavor and age of which can be questionable, and which has preservatives. Best to work your way through a head a week.
The more you break down garlic, the stronger its flavor. So if you want to gently flavor the oil you’re using to saute vegetables, throw in halved or whole cloves. “I use it almost every single time I saute a vegetable,” Ambrosino says. If you want just a whisper of garlic in your mashed potatoes, throw some cloves in as you boil the potatoes (remove or crush and incorporate into the final dish) or steep it in the milk as you warm it.
Minced makes for especially potent flavor. If it’s going into a dish raw and you’re worried about its strength, consider this tip from Deputy Food Editor and Recipes Editor Bonnie S. Benwick: Mince the cloves and place in a small microwave-safe bowl with a teaspoon or two of extra-virgin olive oil. Microwave in 10-second increments until fragrant, and the bits have turned slightly golden.
If you prefer your minced garlic on the smoother side, mince it with a pinch of kosher salt, chopping and smearing the two together until it forms a paste. That’s especially good for something like salad dressing, Winslow says.
Roasting garlic is another versatile option. Winslow and Ambrosino suggest cutting off the top 1/4 inch of two heads to expose the cloves, drizzling them with 2 tablespoons of oil, wrapping in aluminum foil and roasting at 500 degrees for about 40 minutes. The garlic will be very soft, which makes it easy to squeeze cloves out of the papery skins once they have cooled slightly. Incorporate the cloves into butter for a compound butter, or add to mayonnaise for a quasi-aioli. Or just spread directly onto bread. Use them wherever you want mellow, sweet garlic flavor. Roasted garlic has the potential to win over skeptics.
Cooking with it
If you want to use garlic in more of your everyday cooking, one simple way is to rub a raw clove on toasted or broiled bread. “It’s like salt in a way,” Ambrosino says. “It just adds more flavor.” Serve with salad, soup, dips, spreads, bruschetta and tapenade.
Winslow likes to add garlic to marinades, especially for the Cuban pork roast in her book. “It makes such a full-flavored marinade,” she says. And garlic is a natural in dressings. It’s also right at home in stir-fries, particularly when mixed with scallions and ginger. (Just keep your eye on it, as once garlic is minced, it can cook and turn fragrant in as little as 30 seconds.)
Ambrosino likes to do a simple pasta with oil, garlic and hot pepper.
That’s only the beginning. “Garlic is definitely our second love behind onions,” Winslow says. “I think it’s an ingredient that should be in every cook’s kitchen.“It’s used in cuisines all around the world,” she adds. “It’s really worthwhile getting to know it.”