Garlic is one of the ingredients that almost always needs to be minced, chopped or crushed before using it in a dish. After all, it's the rare recipe that calls for whole cloves of garlic. Besides, garlic is a potent ingredient, and a little bit goes a long way. A single clove or two is generally enough to flavor an entire dish (although many aficionados prefer more).
You can buy various gadgets that will thoroughly pulverize a clove (or several) of garlic, and many of them seem convenient and effective.
Most likely owe their existence to the fact that many home cooks are, perhaps, a bit squeamish about getting the smell of garlic on their fingers. This is understandable. On the other hand, many professional cooks regard their permanently garlic-infused fingers as a badge of honor.
Still, if smelly fingers are a concern, consider using a pair of disposable gloves while handling your raw garlic. That's much preferable to the unwanted effects some methods of crushing garlic have on its eventual flavor.
Why Crush Garlic?
But let's back up for a second and talk about why you might want to crush garlic in the first place, as opposed to slicing, chopping or mincing it. And it depends on the recipe, and of course if you're following a recipe that calls for crushed garlic, there's probably a good reason for that.
To understand why, it helps to know that garlic is made up of tiny cells, each one filled with a pungent, sulfur-based liquid. Crushing garlic breaks some of those cells, releasing this garlic juice, which ramps up the flavor of the garlic.
Crushing doesn't break up all of the cells, however. Which means that crushed garlic will impart a milder garlic flavor to a dish than sliced, chopped or minced garlic. Basically, the smaller the bits you break the garlic into, the hotter it will taste, due to the greater amount of garlic juice you're releasing.
How NOT to Crush Garlic
Now, you might already have a kitchen tool or two designed to take a large ingredient and shred it into small bits. A rasp grater like a microplane, for instance, or even the small holes on a box grater.
You probably shouldn't use these on garlic, however. Garlic prepared this way can be overpowering, for the reasons we just discussed. The finer you shred it, the more pungent and acrid the flavor will be.
The amount of juice the garlic releases is a telltale sign. More juice equals more burn. And grating garlic produces a lot of juice.
A garlic press is better than a grater, but not by much. You could pulse it a food processor, just until it's chopped, not puréed. But if you only have one clove of garlic, it'll probably just rattle around in the bowl and not get chopped.
So what should you do?
How to Crush Garlic
We have a preferred technique, and it'll sound a bit boring because it doesn't use any fancy gadgets—unless a chef's knife and a cutting board count as fancy. But they're really all you need. Especially since the task of peeling and crushing can be done more or less at the same time.
Here it is: Separate a clove from the head. Place it on your cutting board. Place the flat of your knife across the clove, and use the heel of your hand to sharply smack the flat of the blade against the cutting board. The clove will be peeled and crushed. Just pick out and dispose of the peel and you're all set.
This, by the way, is also the starting point for mincing or chopping garlic. If you're slicing it, you want your garlic clove whole, so you'd have to peel it another way.
Of course, crushing does not break up the entire clove. At the most, you might end up with two or three larger chunks of garlic, but for the most part, that whole smashed clove is still going to hang around. But for marinades or for braising, this is exactly what you want.
Since you're not serving the liquid, but merely using the liquid as a medium to impart flavor to whatever you are marinating or braising, crushing the garlic works perfectly. The slow process of marinating or braising is more than enough to allow the garlic flavor to work its magic, and you don't have to worry about someone getting the whole clove of garlic on their plate.
How to Crush Garlic, Pt. 2
Another technique, which works well and is sort of midway between crushing and mincing, is to crush your garlic with a fork.
Peel the garlic, place it on your cutting board, lay the tines of a fork straight across it and press down once. If any garlic sticks to the fork, swipe it back off with your finger. Rotate the fork 90 degrees and press down one more time.
That's it. Crushed garlic with two strokes of a fork.