Understanding Garlic

The ancient Egyptians viewed garlic and onions with divinity and took their oaths on them. Among other treasures in Tutankhamen’s tomb were heads of garlic.

Garlic is native to south-central Asia and the central Asian areas. It’s likely the plant made its way west to the Middle East and the Mediterranean on the caravans along the Silk Road in deep antiquity. Garlic seems unchanged since the days of ancient Egypt.

The white skinned garlic you find at most supermarkets, and sometimes see braided into long strands, is usually soft-neck garlic. Hard-neck garlic, which tends to have darker red or purple- striped skins, is generally more pungent. But the hard neck varieties are hardier and their flavors are more varied than the soft-neck varieties. Despite its pungent smell and antibacterial properties, heavy applications of agricultural chemicals are used to fumigate the soil in which it grows against root-destroying worms known as nematodes. Because it’s easy to grow, many organic farmers grow it, and finding organic garlic is not that difficult.

Garlic is odorless until you peel the skin from the cloves. Then enzymes start working to produce a compound called allicin, which gives garlic its familiar pungency. The more finely you chop or mash garlic, the more allicin is created, and the stronger the pungency will be (a garlic press yields the most intense flavor, whereas whole cloves or coarsely chopped cloves yield proportionally less).

If chopped garlic sits out, however, in less than an hour further enzymatic action degrades the allicin, reducing the punch but increasing garlic’s healthful properties. If you use will be using garlic raw (in a salad dressing, for an example) you may want to prep it 15 minutes ahead of time for that reason.

Cooking, use freshly peeled cloves for the best flavor.

Avoid garlic with green sprouts showing from the tips of the cloves. The heads should feel firm when given a gentle squeeze.

Store garlic in a perforated container (to keep it dry) at room temperature. Its papery husks will keep it fresh for a couple of weeks or longer.

Garlic loses its pungency when peeled, so those jars of peeled garlic cloves will have much less flavor than fresh, unpeeled garlic.

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