Be a Home Superstar Chef (Part 8 – Garlic)

This is part 8 of our on-going Home Superstar Chef series. The previous posts in this series were Part 1 – Good Pans, Part 2 – Shallots, Part 3 – Pine Nuts, Part 4 – KnivesPart 5 – High Heat Cooking, Part 6 – Restaurant Supply Houses and Part 7 – Pork Chops.  This entry will deal with garlic.

garlicGarlic may seem ubiquitous and ordinary, after all it seems to be a staple in the cuisine of almost every culture, but knowing more about it can really elevate your cooking to new heights. On the other hand, mistreatment of this wondrous knob of deliciousness can ruin an otherwise fantastic dish. If you are serious about cooking great food, then garlic needs to be one of your best friends.

Garlic, you may know it better as Allium sativum, comes in many types, but most of us rarely see anything except the softneck artichoke variety that we get at the local grocery store. In fact, for the purposes of this post, since we can all get it at any time, that is the generic garlic that I will be referring to. However, if you can get other varieties, by all means try them. One caveat, while there is nothing wrong with it, elephant garlic is not big garlic, it is actually a small leek.

It is rumored that garlic has amazing properties that ward off heart disease, some forms of cancer, the flu, colds, vampires and evil spirits. Possibly so, but The Lost Boys put the lie to at least one of those claims. What I do know to be fact is that it makes food taste great, unless it is mistreated.

Be Kind to Your Garlic – Preparation

How can garlic be mistreated? It can be cooked with too much heat, it can be cooked too long, or it can be added at the wrong time. While some people like the taste of burnt garlic, to me it is hallmark of a ruined dish. We will examine various ways to properly cook garlic in this post. But first, let’s look at how to prepare to cook it.

First we need to get the individual cloves out of the head. There are a variety of ways to do this, but depending on how much garlic I need to use, I recommend one of these two. If I just need a few cloves I peel a little of the paper off of the side and use my thumb to loosen each piece. This allows the bulb to remain intact and none of the remaining cloves will be bruised. If, however, I am using the whole head of garlic, I lay it on the cutting board and push down on it with the palm of my hand and use a slight rolling motion while increasing pressure until the head breaks apart.

Now we have our individual cloves free, but they still have paper on them. That is exactly how we want them for our first two applications. The first of which is roasting. This will give you a sweet, creamy garlic paste. This can be used in a lot of dishes where you want a nice garlic flavor, without the harshness of raw garlic. Garlic mashed potatoes comes to mind, and until I learned this technique mine were never very good.

A lot of cookbooks suggest cutting the end off of a whole head of garlic and roasting it that way, but I prefer to use individual cloves. Using a whole head allows the outside pieces to cook more than the inside. Using individual cloves lets me move them around halfway through cooking. Maybe it doesn’t make that much difference, but it is how I do it.

Cooking Garlic

Start by preheating your oven to 425°F. Break apart two bulbs of garlic, leaving the paper on the individual cloves. Get a piece of foil that is twice as large as  you will need to wrap them all loosely. Fold the foil in half the short way, it should be roughly square, and mound the pieces in the middle. Drizzle with a splash of olive oil and then add a pinch or 2 of salt. I usually add a sprig or rosemary or thyme, but that is completely optional. Loosely close the foil and roast in a small baking dish for about 45 minutes, giving the pieces a toss halfway through. Remove, let cool, then just squeeze the garlic out. At this point I usually mash it with a fork and a little olive oil. Whatever I don’t need right then goes in the fridge.

The next method gives almost the same results, but not quite, and can usually be used the same way. When there is no time for roasting, break up a head of garlic, again leaving the skins on. Place a dry heavy pan over medium heat and add your garlic. Shake and toss the garlic every once in awhile. When all of the pieces are spotted brown and smelling quite fragrant, usually after about 7 to 10 minutes, remove from heat. Cool and peel.

For all of the next applications our cloves need to be peeled. Again, there are a variety of ways to accomplish this. The first is to lay the flat (a side) of the knife on the clove and give it a good whack, smashing the clove and making it easy to remove the paper. This works very well as long as you are careful not to let the blade tip up as you strike. No one wants to eat bloody garlic, so watch that the business edge stays pointing down slightly.

I have fairly strong hands, so unless I need a lot of garlic I just squeeze the cloves between my thumb and the knuckle of my index finger until it breaks. The skins fall right off. Both of these methods break the cloves, which is fine if you are slicing, mincing, or pureeing the garlic, but not good if you need intact cloves. If so, grab a sharp paring knife and prepare to spend some time with your garlic.

When you look at a peeled clove of garlic, you will notice that each clove has a nice smooth end and an end that has a hard rough texture. That hard end always gets tossed in the stock pot or discarded altogether. To peel intact whole cloves, carefully slice that rough end off and then use the edge of the knife and your fingers to feel the paper off. It is kind of tedious, but as you will see, sometimes necessary.

Okay, now that we have our cloves peeled, it is time to introduce a big controversy. A garlic controversy, you might ask? Oh yes, what comes next is to foodies what the Florida recount is to political junkies. This is bigger than new Coke, Tiger Woods, and healthcare reform all rolled into one. Anthony Bourdain, sainted potty-mouthed chef, author, TV star, world traveler, troublemaker and old punk connoisseur is worshiped as a minor god by foodies, cooks, and food bloggers alike…and I am no different. He’s the man, as we used to say, and there is no doubt about it. Now, Bourdain insists that garlic must always be sliced, not minced, not smashed, and definitely not pureed. While I do understand where he is coming from, I must most respectfully commit heresy and say that, on this one single issue at least, Lord Anthony is pretty well full of shit.

Sliced garlic, when cooked, has a very pleasant, mild flavor. Minced garlic adds a stronger, more pungent taste, and most powerful of all is pureed garlic. Garlic contains an acid called alliin and an enzyme named alliinase. When combined they produce a compound called allicin. Besides being one of my favorite Elvis tunes, allicin is what gives garlic its bite. The more that garlic is processed, the more alliin and alliinase are released and combined into allicin, hence more heat and ‘garlickiness.’ Sometimes we want that.

So, now we know how to peel and get our garlic ready depending on what we want from the end product. How do we use it in our cooking without getting that nasty bitter burnt taste, or an uncooked, almost fishy raw taste? While there is no single method, there are a couple of techniques that can be used nearly all of the time. We’ve already discussed roasting and toasting when we need a sweet hit of garlic. If a recipe calls for a lot of vegetables to be cooked, sweated, sauteed, or browned before a liquid is added and the dish is brought to a simmer, add the garlic last, right before the liquid. Stir constantly until your nose tells you the garlic is cooking, usually no more than a minute unless your heat is very low. As soon as it is nice and fragrant, but is not taking on any color, add the liquid.

For dishes that do not have a sufficient wet cooking time after the garlic has been added, we need to cook it slowly over low heat. Add your garlic and some fat, usually oil or butter, to the pan at the same time, or in the case of butter, as soon as it is melted. Keep the heat low and stir often. If the garlic starts to brown, the oil is too hot and you should probably start over. If the next step of your recipe requires higher heat and more time than the garlic can handle, remove the garlic to a bowl and add it back in near the end of the cooking process. I do this when I make things like risotto or garlic shrimp. It makes a huge difference. The oil that the garlic was cooked in will have plenty of flavor for cooking the rice or shrimp, and the addition of cooked garlic at the end ensures big garlic taste with no nasty burnt taste.

Who knew that there was so much to using garlic? It seems simple enough, just another ingredient, but it is much more than that. That was driven home to me when I sat down to write a short post about the wonders of garlic and over 6 hours later I have this long ode to the noxious bulb that barely scratches the surface of what it can do. So, to cap everything off, here is a recipe for garlic confit. This stuff is amazing and can be used in so many ways. My favorite, though,  is to simply use it like butter on freshly baked bread.

Making Garlic Confit

Only one more thing before we get to the recipe, make sure to look for the freshest garlic that you can find. If it has started to sprout or feels soft, it is not at all fresh. And never, ever buy garlic in a jar or a tub, especially the minced stuff. It tastes like crap, and cooking does not improve it.

Garlic Confit only has two ingredients; garlic and oil. I only make this with either canola or good olive oil. The choice of oil is really a matter of taste, and both of my choices work well for me.  First peel at least two garlic heads using the last, tedious method described above, it will definitely be worth the extra time. We want beautiful whole cloves as the finished product.

Place your garlic in a fairly small sauce pan and add enough oil so that it covers the garlic with about and inch or so to spare. We want this to cook very slowly, so place a cast iron skillet over medium-low heat and then place the saucepan in the skillet to help diffuse the heat. The oil should only get hot enough that you never see much more than a few bubbles streaming up now and then, and the garlic should not take on any color. Cook like this for about 45 minutes, giving it a gentle stir every 5 minutes, being extra careful not near the end to not break up the cloves.

Once it is nice and tender, let cool, then refrigerate right in the oil. This stuff is like gold, and you will find tons of uses for it…but make sure to save some to smear on bread. When the sad day arrives where you have eaten every clove, start looking for ways to use that left over oil. It is pretty special too.

There you have it, your new best friend, garlic. Like all relationships, the more you give, the more you get. Now pass the breath mints, will you?

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