Ahh – the fragrant aroma of garlic! Whether emanating from a grilled steak or a pot of homemade marinara sauce simmering on the stove, garlic adds depth and flavoring to cooking.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is a member of the Amaryllis Family which includes leeks, onions and shallots. It’s a perennial and underground bulb composed of pungent “cloves.” Garlic is native to Central Asia and is prevalent in Mediterranean countries. In the U.S., approximately 90 percent of the garlic used is grown in California.
The ancient Greek name for garlic was scorodon, which was translated as “rose puante”, or “stinking rose”. The pungent flavor of garlic is a chemical reaction which occurs when the bulbs are broken and is most intense after chopping or mincing. This chemical reaction cannot occur after garlic is cooked, which explains why roasted garlic is sweeter.
Even though the flavor of garlic is intense, it is a low-acid vegetable with a pH between 5.3-6.3 which means that it can support bacterial growth and toxin production. Improper home canning, garlic-in-oil mixtures, moisture, high temperatures, lack of oxygen and low-acid conditions all favor the growth of bacteria which can cause botulism, food poisoning and potential death. So, buy your garlic fresh or use commercially preserved garlic in oil which follow strict standards.
Garlic has been used for over 7,000 years for medicinal purposes to treat hypertension, infections, and snakebites, and some cultures have used it to ward off evil spirits. It was believed in Central Europe that garlic would protect against devils, werewolves, and vampires. To ward off vampires, garlic could be worn on one’s person, hung in windows, or rubbed on chimneys and keyholes. The Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans used garlic for healing purposes, and during the reign of King Tut, fifteen pounds of garlic would buy a healthy male slave.
In 1858, Pasteur first noted garlic’s antibacterial activity. During World War 1, the Russian army used garlic to treat wounds incurred by soldiers on the Front Line. The Red Army physicians relied so heavily on garlic that it became known as the “Russian Penicillin”.
Currently, garlic is used for reducing cholesterol levels and cardiovascular risk, as well as for its antimicrobial properties. Garlic has been tried for treating an enlarged prostate, diabetes, osteoarthritis, diarrhea, cold and flu. Some of these uses are scientifically supported. Garlic is also used as an insect repellent, a tick repellent for animals, and was once used to treat hoof and mouth disease in cattle.
Garlic is usually part of a recipe in minced form – salad dressings, marinades, or oils flavored with garlic are used to season meats, seafood, vegetables, bread and pasta sauces like marinara and pesto. In Indochina, garlic, chopped fresh chilies, lime juice, sugar and water are basic components in fish sauce. Chili oil with garlic is a popular dipping sauce in Southeast Asia for meat and seafood. Hummus is made with chick peas and garlic. Egg yolks, oil and garlic blended together become aioli, and tzatziki sauce, used in Mediterranean cuisine, also depends heavily on garlic for its flavor.
Can you eat other parts of the garlic plant? In Eastern Europe, the shoots or “scapes” are pickled and eaten as an appetizer. Immature scapes are tender and have a milder taste than garlic cloves. They are also known as “garlic spears”, “stems”, or “tops” and are often used in stir frying or braising. “Laba garlic” is a type of pickled garlic made by soaking garlic cloves in vinegar and is served with dumplings in northern China to celebrate Chinese New Year.
In British and European cuisine, smoked garlic is becoming increasingly popular and is prized for stuffing poultry and game, and in soups and stews. In both these cases the papery skin is used as most of the smoky flavor is concentrated there rather in the cloves.
Garlic leaves are a popular vegetable in many parts of Asia. The leaves are cut, cleaned, and then stir-fried with eggs, meat, or vegetables.
Roasted garlic also makes a flavorful spread for crackers or toast. Cut the top off a whole bulb of garlic to expose the cloves. Allow one half to one head per person. Place the heads in a baking dish or wrap in aluminum foil with a little olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to one hour until tender. The roasted garlic cloves can easily be squeezed from the skin and spread with a knife.
What about other forms of garlic? Garlic powder has a different taste from fresh garlic. If used as a substitute for fresh garlic, 1/8 teaspoon of garlic powder is equivalent to one clove of garlic.
And finally, the flavor and aroma of garlic are great, but what about “garlic breath?” Try eating parsley – it usually alleviates any offensive odor.
How to Buy and Store
Choose garlic bulbs that are firm and tight-skinned. If you grow your own garlic, spread the bulbs out on newspaper and let them cure for 2-3 weeks until the skins are papery. Garlic cloves can be frozen unpeeled or the whole bulbs can be stored in the refrigerator or at room temperature for 3-5 weeks in a well-ventilated place. To peel garlic cloves, press down with the flat side of a knife until the clove and skin crack and remove the skin