The ubiquitous garlic bulb as we know it, allium sativum, has found it’s way into almost every country and culture of the globe from coast to coast, across vast continents and is deeply entrenched in the history of our world. That’s because it’s a regular little superstar of a plant, garnering modern scientific recognition for it’s effectiveness against high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, cholesterol, colds, some cancers and historically was a highly prized bedrock of any medicine man’s cabinet. Simply put, garlic is an excellent tonic for the human organism and without doubt, garlic is here to stay. My top ten garlic facts will help you get the most out of it in the way that I know best; eating it.
Garlic tastes fantastic, especially if treated carefully, with respect. Not everyone realises how delicate garlic can be, because its scent and uncooked flavour are anything but subtle, being bulldozers of flavours which not many people want to carry on their breath. But garlic is a misunderstood, delicate little flower and if treated badly at the hands of a cook will fight back with bitterness, leaving an acrid twang to your food that will literally leave a bad taste in your mouth.
A long standing affair.
My love affair with garlic has been kindled over many years and still the passion burns like a fierce oven, deep inside me. I’ve had a distinctly unhealthy (or perhaps healthy) obsession since I was at university, when my friends and I would buy an entire sack of garlic at the start of term and spend the coming weeks making garlic bread at almost every meal.
This enduring love of garlic hasn’t wavered, from roasting whole garlic through to ‘treating’ myself on holiday with an enormous chain of garlic, rather than the usual keepsakes or souvenirs. I just can’t get enough of the stuff and I’ve learned quite a few garlic facts along my gastronomic journey.
But I also think it’s misunderstood. Easily taken wrong, misread or abused. This gentle little allium is seen as the antisocial sledgehammer of the fragrant world, like it’s the overpowering addition to any dish. That simply isn’t the case and there’s a few things you need to understand about garlic it before you use it.
I’ve put together a list of ten garlic facts for you, a list of top tips so that you can see this delightful allium for what it is. There’s several simple little recipes you can use here as well, all featuring garlic as the star.
1. Raw garlic kicks ass.
This is the powerful one. Raw, crushed garlic is beautiful when used in moderation with salad dressings, cooked pulses and savoury yoghurt sauces. Or oh-so simply rubbed on toast, as is done when preparing bruschetta, then topped with chopped tomatoes and little else ideally. Using raw garlic is an exercise in restraint, just a gentle addition and it can elevate some foods to heavenly levels.
For example, take a standard vinaigrette (3:1 ratio of oil to vinegar, plus 1 teaspoon dijon mustard, plus salt and pepper), then add 1 small minced clove of garlic. It takes the dressing to another level. From there you can add chilli or herbs, but to my mind, just that crushed garlic takes you from a nice dressing to a god-damn-that’s-good dressing.
2. Burned garlic does not kick ass.
If you cook it too hard or too fast it turns bitter and repugnant, which is easily done if added at the start of a stir fry. You just don’t want to go there, it’s acrid and horrid.
3. Appropriate cooking mellows garlic out.
If cooked gently and in a balanced way, garlic is not overpowering, it should have a solid but rounded flavour. I particularly like Yotam Ottolenghi’s suggestion of cooking garlic slices and red chilli in oil over a medium heat until they are golden, then remove and leave on a kitchen towel to dry, before using as a topping for wilted greens.
4. Very long cooking sweetens garlic.
Yes, absolutely sweet. If you have never eaten a whole, baked, smoked garlic bulb, then you are missing out on one of life’s fine indulgences. Buy a bulb of smoked garlic, slice the top off, drizzle a little olive oil in there, then wrap it in foil and bake at 200ºC for 45 minutes. Remove from the foil and squeeze each softened clove out out onto the best fresh crusty bread money can buy and eat. That’s a banquet, right there. Add some fresh oysters to make it a balanced peasant meal (oysters, historically were peasant food, although garlic was a prized currency).
5. Everybody’s tolerances are different.
And some people are intolerant to garlic. Some poor people cannot digest garlic easily and that is a certifiable tragedy, we should all weep for these poor souls. Those with garlic intolerances will not enjoy garlic in the same way that a self confessed garlic lover like myself will, because they will experience all sorts of digestive side effects after eating garlic, most of which aren’t very pleasant. Poor, poor people.
6. Remove that shoot from the middle of a garlic clove for increased tolerance.
If you slice a clove of garlic in half you’ll find a little shoot that runs up the middle of it. This can be the source of digestive discomfort for some people, so removing it might make your diner’s lives a little bit more comfortable.
7. Black garlic is really sweet.
If you can hunt this stuff down you’re in for a real treat, it’s like baked garlic’s wise old grandparent, a thick, treacly, black bulb of garlic. It’s great in dressings, sauces or as a topping to roasted vegetables or on bread.
8. Cooking garlic very gently is the most aromatic way to use it.
I love the Italian approach to food. They’re so utterly respectful of ingredients, unlike so many Brits who just want cheap and ‘cheerful’*. Anyway, one recipe that gives each individual ingredient’s flavour the utmost respect is the pasta dish of ‘alio olio con peperoncino’, or in English, garlic, oil and chilli. Only the Italians could devise such a simple dish with so few ingredients which is so breathtakingly delicious. It’s a recipe which garlic is the foundation of, yet you don’t actually eat any garlic. The key to this is gently imparting the flavour of the garlic into the oil before cooking, and this is my favourite use of garlic because of it’s relative subtlety and delicacy.
Add plenty of olive oil to your pan and warm it over a low heat, then bash a couple of cloves of garlic under a knife. Don’t chop them, or mince them, or slice them. Just remove the skins then add the cloves to the saucepan with some crushed peperoncino chillis. Now leave this for 5 minutes, making sure the oil and garlic have plenty of contact. If you ANY signs of the garlic browning, you’re too hot, the garlic shouldn’t sizzle, or take on any more than a gentle golden colour. After 5 minutes, turn off the heat, remove the garlic cloves, add some chopped parsley and cooked spaghetti, then serve with lots of grated parmesan. Pasta heaven.
* Since when was cheap a cheerful experience? Don’t get me started, because that’s a whole other topic…
9. Garlic crushers don’t save time.
As I proved in my video, crushing a garlic clove with a knife is quicker than using a garlic crusher and has the added benefit of reducing your washing up stack. That’s a win-win in my world, so the garlic crusher only gets an outing if I’ve got a LOT of garlic to prepare.
10. Wild garlic is one of nature’s hidden treats.
Wild garlic springs into abundance in, err, spring. It leaps up all over the country, in woodland, in people’s gardens, all over the place. If you come across a large patch of it, dive in and help yourself and feast on one of nature’s great gifts. How do you double check it’s wild garlic and not something else, something dangerous? Break it and smell it… it smells of garlic! Add generously to salads or make soups or pesto with it.
With this knowledge I hope you can go forth and eat with a far greater understanding of garlic and how to use it. If you have any other garlic facts, stories or uses, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.