Cooking with garlic

Learn how to buy and store garlic, and how to use it in your kitchen. Discover its therapeutic properties.

By Moira Adams

Garlic cloves

Photo: © Jon Sullivan

A clove of garlic weighs next to nothing, but within its tiny volume it packs a huge amount of flavor not to mention a number of valuable health benefits. In this article, I'll tell you how to use garlic in your cooking, and give you some tips for buying and storing it.

But let's start with those health benefits. Garlic is a member of the allium family the same as onions, shallots, chives and leeks. When you crush or chew it, it releases a chemical called allicin, which is thought to have a number of important therapeutic properties.

According to some studies, allicin can help fight colds, flu, cold sores, and various other viral and fungal infections. It claims to improve circulation and reduce cholesterol (by up to 10 percent, according to one piece of research), and can therefore cut the risk of strokes and heart attacks. It is also thought to play a role in reducing blood sugar levels.

A snag

But there is a snag. The health benefits of allicin are lost when it is cooked at a high temperature or for more than a few minutes. To get the most from it, you would need to eat one or two cloves of raw garlic every day or, at least, garlic that has been only lightly cooked. For most of us, that's not an easy option. Nevertheless, if you can add a little crushed or thinly sliced garlic to soups, salads or other dishes whenever possible, you should enjoy at least some of the benefits.

Keep in mind that only fresh garlic releases allicin. Health-wise, there is no benefit in buying powdered garlic or garlic paste although these are still useful ingredients for adding flavor to cooked dishes.

Buying and storing

Garlic pot

An earthenware garlic pot
Photo © Moira Adams

When buying garlic, be sure to choose bulbs that are clean and dry. They should have their outer skins intact, and should be firm when pressed. Avoid bulbs that are soft or squishy, or which show signs of mould.

Contrary to what some people will tell you, fresh garlic should not be stored in the fridge. It is best kept in a warm, dry, well-ventilated environment, ideally at a temperature of about 64F (18C). I store my own garlic in a small earthenware pot like the one in this photo. As you can see, it has holes in the side to allow air to circulate. It will comfortably store two large garlic heads.

Another possibility is to buy ready-peeled garlic immersed in olive oil or other oils. Not only does this infuse the oil with a nice flavor, making it ideal for salad dressings, it also saves you the trouble of having to peel the individual bulbs. But be very cautious about storing your own garlic in this way. The problem is that untreated garlic in oil can produce a bacterium that causes botulism. This is true even if it is refrigerated. Commercial oils don't have this problem as they contain chemicals that reduce the risk. But even these need to be stored carefully, so be sure to read the storage instructions on the label.

Peeling and crushing

Fresh garlic can be fiddly to peel. The solution is to remove the thick outer skin, trim off the hard ends, and then put the bulb on a flat surface and press on it firmly with your thumb. This will cause the thin inner skin to break up, making it easy to remove.

Once the bulb has been peeled, the best way to crush it is with a pestle and mortar. But you can also do the job by placing it on a board and pressing down with a flat knife blade or the underside of a spoon. Alternatively, you can use a dedicated garlic press, but some of the garlic will always get stuck in the little holes and will therefore be wasted, and the presses are tricky to clean. Of course, you can simply slice the bulbs with a sharp knife if you prefer.

Cooking with garlic

A little garlic will improve the flavor of stews, casseroles, curries, roasted vegetables, pasta dishes and pizzas. It has a particular affinity with tomatoes, and it also goes well with eggplant (aubergine), zucchini (courgettes), peppers and mushrooms. As a rule of thumb, allow one crushed or peeled clove per two portions of the finished dish.

Bruschetta

Bruschetta
Photo © Mike Fleming

A particular favorite of mine is garlic bread, which makes a great accompaniment to pasta and pizza. To make it, mix one or two cloves of crushed raw garlic with a little olive oil or soft butter enough to form a thick paste. Slice a baguette or a firm bread roll into two, spread the garlic mixture on both pieces, grill or toast in the oven, and serve. You can also add peeled plum tomatoes, fresh basil and a little sliced mozzarella to the garlic bread to make bruschetta, a delicious appetizer.

Antidote

Finally, a word for those of you who are worried about garlicky breath. There are a number of traditional antidotes for this. They include chewing on a coffee bean, and eating raw parsley. To be honest, I'm not sure how effective these remedies are. But given the advantages that garlic can bring to your cuisine, they are certainly worth a try.

October 2014

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Please note: Neither Veg World nor its contributors are qualified to give medical or nutritional advice. If in doubt, always consult a suitably-qualified professional.