Garlic is one of the most versatile flavors to ever grace a kitchen. It not only tastes wonderful, it’s very good for your body. Learn about Mother Nature’s most precious gift to cooks of all levels of expertise. You don’t have to be dodging vampires to love garlic!
Garlic (allium sativum) has lovingly been dubbed The Stinking Rose, yet it is actually a member of the lily (Liliaceae) family and a cousin to onions, leeks, chives, and shallots. The edible bulb or head of garlic is composed of smaller cloves. It’s a root crop, with the bulb growing underground. Crops are harvested in mid-July and hung in sheds to dry before reaching their prime in late-July/early-August.
There are over 300 varieties of garlic grown worldwide. American garlic, with its white, papery skin and strong flavor is one of the most common varieties. Italian and Mexican garlic, both of which have pink- to purple-colored skins, are slightly milder-flavored varieties. Elephant garlic (allium scorodoprasum), which has very large, extremely mild-flavored cloves, is not a true garlic, but a closer relative to the leek.
A little history
The word garlic comes from Old English garleac, meaning “spear leek.” Dating back over 6,000 years, it is native to Central Asia, and has long been a staple in the Mediterranean region, as well as a frequent seasoning in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Eqyptians worshipped garlic and placed clay models of garlic bulbs in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Garlic was so highly-prized, it was even used as currency. And, of course, folklore holds that garlic repels vampires, protects against the Evil Eye, and warded off jealous nymphs said to terrorize pregnant women and engaged maidens. And let us not forget to mention the alleged aphrodisiacal powers of garlic which have been extolled through the ages.
Surprisingly, garlic was frowned upon by foodie snobs in the United States until the first quarter of the twentieth century, being found almost exclusively in ethnic dishes in working-class neighborhoods. But, by 1940, America had embraced garlic, finally recognizing its value as not only a minor seasoning, but as a major ingredient in recipes. Quaint diner slang of the 1920’s referred to garlic as Bronx vanilla, halitosis, and Italian perfume. Now, Americans alone consume more than 250 million pounds of garlic annually.
And what causes that smell, you may ask? When garlic cells are ruptured by cutting or pressing, they release an enzyme called allinaise chemically changing the inherent alliin into allicin, a sulfur-containing molecule, which results in that heady, pungent garlic smell which is a mainstay in kitchens around the world. These sulphur molecules are absorbed into the bloodstream and lungs, escaping through exhaled air and perspiration. Thus, the garlic breath. And, in some people who consume massive quantities, a noticeable garlicky body odor can result.
If you are a garlic-lover, it’s wise to surround yourself with others who enjoy garlic, or try munching on parsley to rid yourself of garlic breath. And, to rid your hands of the smell after peeling and/or chopping garlic, simply wash your hands and then rub your clean hands on a chrome faucet. It works like magic!
History and Facts:
Garlic is a member of the lily family and a close relative of the onion. The bulb is the plant part that has been celebrated in songs and stories throughout the centuries. Garlic contains the amino acid, alliin, which scientists say has antibiotic effects. Garlic is believed to promote cardiovascular activity and a beneficial, soothing action on the respiratory system.
Garlic is a source of potassium and has trace amounts of calcium, fiber, iron, and vitamin C.
Garlic should be stored at temperatures between 32 and 34 degrees fahrenheit, with a relative humidity of 65 to 75 percent. Typical shelf life is between 90 and 120 days. Heat and handling affect garlic’s potency.
Selection and Storage
Choose heads that are firm to the touch, with no nicks or soft cloves. If you notice dark, powdery patches under the skin, pass it up since it’s an indication of a common mold which will eventually spoil the flesh. Store unpeeled in an open container in a cool, dry place away from other foods. Do not refrigerate or freeze unpeeled garlic. As garlic ages, it will begin to produce green sprouts in the center of each clove. These infant green sprouts can be bitter, so discard them before chopping the garlic for your recipe. However, if you plant the cloves and let them sprout to a height of about six inches, you can use the sprouts like chives in salads and such. Properly stored garlic can keep up to three months.
To peel a clove, place it on a cutting board on its side, and gently press down quickly with the flat side of a butcher knife. The skin should then easily peel off. If you find the skin clinging desperately to the clove, congratulations! You have fresh garlic. As garlic ages, it shrivels inside the skin, making it easier to peel.
Garlic can also be purchased as peeled whole cloves or minced, both stored in olive or vegetable oil. It’s imperative that garlic in oil be stored under refrigeration to avoid potentially-deadly bacteria growth. If you use a lot of garlic and wish to cut your preparation time down, you can also pre-peel and store your own in olive oil in the refrigerator, but the best flavor will come from freshly-peeled cloves. Use garlic powder, garlic salt, and garlic extract (juice) only as a last resort.
Believe it or not, one raw garlic clove, finely minced or pressed releases more flavor than a dozen cooked whole cloves. When garlic cloves are cooked or baked whole, the flavor mellows into a sweet, almost nutty flavor that hardly resembles any form of pungency. This nutty flavor makes a surprisingly nice addition to desserts, such as brownies or even ice cream. Whole, unpierced cloves barely have any aroma at all, while raw garlic is the strongest in flavor. When sautéing garlic, be very careful not to burn it. The flavor turns intensely bitter, and you’ll have to start over.
Garlic has long been considered a medicinal food, being used to protect against plague by monks of the Middle Ages. Hippocrates used garlic vapors to treat cervical cancer, and garlic poultices were placed on wounds during World War II as an inexpensive, and apparently quite effective replacement for antibiotics, which were scarce during wartime.
Now science is beginning to prove the medicinal properties of garlic that our ancestors took for granted. Studies have shown garlic can suppress the growth of tumors, and is a potent antioxidant good for cardiovascular health. Other studies show garlic can reduce LDL or “bad” cholesterol and is a good blood-thinning agent to avoid blood clots that could lead to heart attack or stroke. All this at only 4 calories per clove!