Cooking with garlic

Pinch, press, smash, crush – best ways to prepare garlic for cooking (with recipes)


Peeling garlic cloves can seem like an onerous chore, particularly if you develop a taste for a greater quantity of garlic in your culinary preparations. Nonetheless, a certain rhythm and efficiency is soon acquired, and the task becomes quick and automatic.

1. PINCH. If you have a relatively easy peeling clove, and if your fingers are fairly strong, you can simply pinch the clove between your finger and thumb, positioning either your finger or thumb along one of the edges of the edges of the clove. This causes the skin to buckle and crack and pull away from the flesh.

You can then use your thumbnail to pull away the root end or tip end of the clove and gain a purchase on the skin to begin separating it from the flesh.

2. WHACK. A standard and more effective variation on the theme calls for placing a clove on a cutting board or other similar surface, laying the flat of a chef’s knife on top of the clove, then lightly whacking the flat of the knife with your fist or the palm of your hand.

This easily buckles and cracks the clove skin and separates it from the flesh. At this point, it is easy to gain a purchase on the skin and peel it away. This is the method I most frequently use and recommend.

3. SMASH. Instead of lightly whacking the flat of a knife blade to crack the clove skin, you can give it a good slam to smash the clove flat. Crushing the clove immediately and thoroughly brings the enzyme alliinase together with alliin to form allicin and other volatile compounds, releasing the garlic’s tumult of complex aromatic flavors.

At this point, the flesh can be stripped off the skin and further minced or crushed. Depending on the particular cultivar, its age, and the stickiness of flesh to skin, the skin can be removed and discarded with varying degrees of effort.

I generally prefer buckling the skin and removing it prior to smashing.

4. CRUSH. Crushing garlic releases all of the garlic’s aromatic pungency. It also allows the garlic to be distributed thoroughly and evenly with other food.

Crushing garlic generates the volatile aromatic flavor elements, and cooking it in oil enhances its character and helps distribute its flavors for the culinary preparation.

It also is ideal for mixing with a dressing for fresh lettuce or greens. One can fully smash a clove with the flat of a chef’s knife, and then quickly mince the smashed flesh with the knife’s cutting edge. I almost always peel garlic before crushing it.

If salt is part of the preparation, it can be an ally in further crushing the garlic. Put the crushed garlic in a small bowl. Add salt, and use the back of a spoon to crush the garlic by using the salt as miniature grinding particles.

This method extracts the juices as well as grinds and quickly produces a garlic slurry.

5. PRESS. In the marketplace, one can find various tools and gimmicks for peeling garlic. I do not have much use for them. Once simple techniques are mastered, there is little need to complicate the process under the guise of simplifying it.

On the other hand, I frequently use a garlic press if I want crushed garlic rather than minced garlic.

Garlic press manufactures usually emphasize that no peeling is necessary. Although this may be true, some waste is inevitable, and there is often more mess.

If you decide to use a garlic press, get a good one. A garlic press should be well made so that it can withstand extended use.

The plunger should fit with little gap on the sides and fully extend into the chamber, so that the garlic does not escape up the sides and is thoroughly forced through the holes, leaving little wasteful residue at the bottom of the chamber.

The chamber should have many small holes so that the garlic is thoroughly crushed, but the press also needs to be compatible with your hand strength. More strength is required to force garlic through tiny holes, but better handle designs provide greater leverage and easier gripping.

The press should also be easy to clean. Some form of plastic device with protuberances that match the holes in the chamber to push out the remaining residue usually fills this role.

6. CHOP AND MINCE. Chopping and mincing are alternatives to crushing. Chopped garlic is coarser and in larger bits. Minced garlic is simply garlic that has been chopped to smaller bits. Mincing creates more of the aromatic sulfur compounds and is more flavorful in this regard, but a toothy bite of more coarsely chopped garlic is good as well.

Cooked in oil to a straw or light tan color, chopped or minced garlic takes on a wonderfully rich, sweet, nutty character. Chop or mince garlic as you would other foods. No specialized technique is required.

Use a good chef’s knife, or Asian equivalent, for the purpose. An 8-inch chef’s knife is a good all around size for the kitchen, and with a bit of practice, one can make quick work of slicing, chopping, or mincing.

One sometimes sees kitchen cooks using small knives for such chores – and indeed, with small cutlery, they do become chores. Paring knives are for paring. Chef’s knives are for chopping and mincing (and many other tasks as well).

7. WHOLE. Roasted garlic is essentially cooked whole, without chopping or crushing. It has a mild, sweet, caramelized taste that has broad appeal. The flavor is simpler and very much different than if the garlic had been chopped or crushed prior to cooking.

Roasted garlic is a tasty spread on crusty bread or toast and is even good in mashed potatoes.

There are various methods of roasting garlic. Here are a few:

Remove the outer skins from a head of garlic, slice off the top of the head so that the clove tips are exposed. Drizzle the exposed tips with oil, cover in foil and roast at 350°F for about an hour.

As a variation, add about of tablespoon of water as well as the oil. In the last 15 minutes of cooking, uncover the garlic and baste with the juices. The heat and cooking time required will vary depending on the size of the heads and your preferences.

Dry roasting individual cloves in a fry pan is another approach that yields garlic that is more toasty and toothy and less caramelized and pasty. Place unpeeled cloves in a skillet and toss and turn periodically for about 8 to 12 minutes until the cloves skins have browned. Vary the time and browning according to the size of the cloves and your preference.

– Adapted from Ted Jordan Meredith, The Complete Book of Garlic: A Guide for Gardeners, Growers, and Serious Cooks, (Timber Press, 2008)
All recipes copyright © 2008 by Ted Jordan Meredith.

Corn on the Cob With Garlic and Olive Oil

4 medium cloves of garlic
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cooked ears of corn

Crush or finely mince the garlic and place in a small bowl. Add the salt and press the salt into the garlic with the back of a spoon macerating the garlic into a slurry. Add olive oil, mix, and drizzle or brush over the ears of cooked corn.

Roasted Garlic, Fresh Goat Cheese, and Arugula on French Bread

1 head of garlic
Extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon water
French bread
Fresh goat cheese (Chèvre)

Remove the outer skins from a head of garlic. Slice off the top of the head so that the clove tips are exposed. Drizzle with oil, add a tablespoon of water, cover in foil, and roast at 350 degrees F. for about an hour.

Lightly toast slices of crusty French bread, drizzle or spritz with olive oil, and lightly salt. Squeeze the roasted garlic paste from the skins and spread on the oiled toast. Top with a smear of goat cheese and chopped arugula. For a closed sandwich, place another piece of oiled toasted bread on top.

Garlic and Olive Oil Bread Dip

Extra virgin olive oil

In restaurants one sometimes encounters a dish of olive oil, or olive oil and balsamic vinegar, for dipping bread – a tasty alternative to butter. This alternate version features the nutty toasty character of minced sautéed garlic.

This preparation method brings out the best in any garlic but is especially good with garlics having a deep, complex character, such as Asiatics, Creoles, Rocamboles, and Purple Stripes.

On the other hand, if you have some aggressive Silverskins on hand, this will tame their harshness and bring out their nutty best.

Finely mince (do not use a garlic press to crush) several cloves of garlic and sauté in several tablespoons of olive oil. Adjust quantities as needed. As the sautéing begins, salt the garlic to taste, and stir occasionally until the garlic is a straw to light tan color. Undercooked and white, the garlic will be less richly flavored and nutty. Overcooked and dark brown, the garlic will begin to taste burnt and acrid. Cooked to a straw to light tan color, and the flavors will be ambrosially rich and nutty.

Transfer the garlic and flavored olive oil into a shallow dish or small bowl.

To eat, dip a piece of good crusty bread into the mixture so that each bite has a bit of the oil and some garlic bits. For a more substantial snack or appetizer, cheese is an excellent accompaniment, as are garden tomatoes and basil, for a variation on the bruschetta theme.

Pasta with Garlic, Bacon, and Beet Greens or Chard

1 large bunch of chard or beet greens
4 slices bacon
1 medium head of garlic
6 ounces farfalle (bow tie) pasta
Extra virgin olive oil
Grated Romano cheese
Salt and pepper

Remove stems from the chard or beet greens and reserve for another use. Coarsely chop the greens and set aside. For a more rustic version, you can include the chopped stems.

Sauté the bacon until crisp, remove from pan, and mince or crumble after it has cooled.

Begin heating the pasta water and cook pasta until al dente. Drain all but a tablespoon of the bacon fat from the sauté pan. Mince garlic, add to pan, lightly salt, and sauté until straw or light tan color. Add the chopped greens, toss, and cover to steam, stirring occasionally. Sprinkles of water can be added as necessary so the greens cook in their own steam without drying. Cook about 7 to 10 minutes, or to desired doneness. Stir in a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and freshly ground pepper to taste.

Toss with the drained pasta, add grated Romano and the crumbled bacon bits, and toss again. Plate and top with additional grated Romano.

Any pasta will do, but the farfalle provides a large flat area so that the greens stick well and do not end up at the bottom of the plate. Myzythra is an alternative to Romano. Parmesan is another possibility, but in this dish the sheep’s milk character of (authentic) Romano or Myzythra seem to complement the greens particularly well. Rocambole, Purple Stripe, Asiatic, and some of the more flavorful Artichoke garlics suit this preparation well.

Pasta with Garlic, Ham, and Summer Squash

4 to 6 small to medium zucchini or other summer squash
2 to 4 ounces of quality ham
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium head garlic, minced
4 to 6 ounces orecchiette pasta
1/3 to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper

Slice the zucchini lengthwise into halves or quarters, depending on the size of the squash, then cut crosswise into pieces about 1/4 in. thick.

Slice the ham thinly, then cut lengthwise, and then crosswise, forming roughly dime-sized pieces.

Begin heating the pasta water and cook pasta until al dente.

Sauté the ham in the olive oil until it begins to brown. Add minced garlic to the pan and sauté until straw to light tan color. Add the zucchini, sprinkle with salt, and toss. Sauté on high heat so that the zucchini will lose its moisture and begin to brown. Moderate the heat as necessary to keep the garlic from burning as the zucchini cooks. When the zucchini is lightly browned and tender but not mushy, add the cooked pasta and toss. Next, add half the Parmesan and toss again. Plate and top with the remaining Parmesan.

The ham is primarily for flavor, so a high-quality dry ham is preferable, and less will be required for the desired flavor effect. The water added sponges that sometimes pass for ham in the supermarket can be used if none other is available, but more will be required and the overall result will not be quite as good. Many other pasta shapes will also work, though spaghetti and its linear relatives do not lend themselves to uniform distribution with the zucchini mixture. Romano, Myzythra, and Asiago are other good cheese alternatives.

Summer squash is in its prime about the time the Rocambole garlics are in their prime, and this has become a favorite dish that features both.

Garlic Dressing

1/8 teaspoon salt
Black pepper
1 medium clove garlic or more
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or balsamic vinegar
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Peel the garlic and mince finely or crush through a garlic press into a small bowl. Add the salt and press into the garlic with the back of a spoon until the garlic forms a paste. Add freshly ground black pepper and vinegar, then whisk. Add the olive oil and whisk again to blend. Pour over salad greens and toss.

Vary the amount of garlic, salt, and vinegar according to taste. Add herbs with the vinegar as desired. For a dressing for cooked vegetables, reduce the amount of vinegar by half or so. The dressing works well with cooked broccoli, Brussels sprouts, most greens, and various other vegetables.

This calls for a garlic that is richly flavored but mild in heat. Rocamboles are ideal. After they have passed their prime, Purple Stripes are excellent substitutes. After Purple Stripes have passed their prime, Ajo Rojo and some of the “sweeter” Creoles are good choices.

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