What Is Garlic?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Fresh garlic

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Although it is one of the most important ingredients in all of the culinary arts, garlic nevertheless seems to mystify us when it comes to classifying it—is it an herb, spice, or vegetable? The simple answer is that garlic is a member of the lily family, along with onions, shallots, and leeks. Its intense and unique flavor and aroma make it a mainstay of cuisines around the world, nearly indispensable in just about every form of Asian, European, African, Latin American, and North American cooking. Garlic is most often cooked, but can also be incorporated raw into recipes.

What Is Garlic?

Garlic grows underground in the form of a bulb. (Its long green shoots produce flower stalks called scapes, which can be eaten.) Covered in an inedible papery skin, the bulb, or head as it is more often referred to, is comprised of individual sections called cloves; there can be anywhere from 10 to 20 cloves per head. These cloves are themselves enclosed in a paperlike skin, and the pale yellowish flesh within is the part of the garlic that is used in cooking.

Garlic is generally used as a flavoring ingredient in recipes rather than as the main ingredient itself; an exception to this is roasted garlic, which can be eaten as a spread or condiment.

How to Cook With Garlic

There is probably no end to the uses and potential uses of garlic in the culinary arts. It can be part of dishes that are sautéed, baked, roasted, and braised; it is added to soups, sauces, marinades, spice rubs, and stir-frys. Garlic is also minced and used as a flavoring in sausages, meatballs, and other ground meat preparations. The entire head of garlic can be roasted whole and the tender cloves used as a spread or added to a soup or sauce.

Before adding garlic to a recipe, the papery skin needs to be removed. There are several tricks to accomplish this task, the simplest being to gently press down on the clove with the flat side of a large knife; the skin should easily peel off. Once you have the bare clove, you will need to slice, chop, mince, grate, press, or crush the garlic; for some techniques, you can use a knife but others require a special tool.

It is important to note that the more you handle your garlic, the more the compound called allicin, a pungent chemical, is released. Therefore, if you grate your garlic using the small holes on a box grater, or purée it in a food processor, your garlic will be much more pungent than if it were sliced. If you want to mince garlic without a knife, pressing the cloves with the tines of a fork will produce better results than a grater or food processor.

When cooking garlic, it is important you watch carefully; it can burn quickly—especially when it is chopped small.

Close up of purple garlic bunch
Robert Daly / Getty Images
Garlic bulb
Westend61 / Getty Images 
Sliced of garlic bread
Krit of Studio OMG / Getty Images 
Jumbo Tiger Prawn Scampi poached in Butter and Herbs
LauriPatterson / Getty Images
Pasta Carbonara
rudisill / Getty Images 

What Does It Taste Like?

When eaten raw, garlic has a powerful, pungent flavor. For that reason, it's customary to cook it in some way before serving it, which mellows the flavor considerably. Roasting garlic changes the flavor and texture significantly, resulting in creamy cloves with a nutty, mild taste.

Garlic Recipes

As garlic is one of the most popular ingredients in cooking, there are endless recipes including garlic. But if you would like the garlic to be the star of the dish, choose a recipe with garlic in the title. We may all be familiar with garlic bread and garlic knots, a simple pasta with garlic, and a garlic aioli (mayonnaise), but there are plenty of other dishes from around the world that highlight garlic, from compound butter to cold soups to braised chicken dishes.

Where to Buy Garlic

Garlic is readily available at the supermarket in the produce section along with the onions and potatoes. It is sold individually as full heads (and sometimes as multiple heads in netted pouches). Make sure to choose heads that are firm; you don't want any soft cloves. Also reject garlic that shows signs of mold (powdery, dark patches) and heads that have sprouted as this means they are older and not as fresh.

Garlic is also sold in jars with olive oil, either as whole, peeled cloves or minced cloves.

Storage

Whole heads of garlic should be kept unpeeled, placed in an open container, and kept away from other foods in a cool, dry place. When stored this way, garlic will keep for up to 3 months. The jars of garlic in oil should be placed in the refrigerator and will last around 3 months.

Nutrition and Benefits

Before garlic became a prominent ingredient, it was used for its medicinal properties for thousands of years to both treat and prevent illness. Garlic is beneficial to our cardiovascular system by reducing blood pressure and lowering levels of LDL, the "bad" cholesterol. It is known to contain antioxidants that protect against cell damage and aging, which may reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Garlic has also shown to help prevent and reduce the severity of the common cold and the flu.