Garlic (allium sativum) is a bulb covered with papery skin enclosing individual cloves of the most potent member of the onion family. Known as one of the oldest cultivated plants, it is native to Central Asia, with its usage being traced back more than 5,000 years. Ancient Olympic athletes ate garlic before competing in events. Soldiers feasted on it before entering battle. Garlic was the cause of the first strike ever recorded: slaves building the pyramids in Egypt refused to work when they were not given enough of this energizing bulb. Today, many health professionals champion garlic’s numerous benefits.
Types of Garlic:
There are 2 main types of garlic bulbs with at least 300 different varieties that vary in strength and nuance.
- Hardneck Garlic has a long hard central stem and when purchased will most likely have an extremely firm stalk protruding an inch or two from the top of the bulb. Hardneck garlic has fewer cloves but they’re larger and easier to peel. It is thought to be more fragrant with an intense flavor.
- Softneck Garlic has a fibrous stem that dries out into a grass-like top and can be easily braided. It’s the type that you’ll most likely see in the produce section of your supermarket. It will have several layers of cloves surrounding the central portion with the innermost layers becoming smaller closer to the center. Softneck garlic tends to be milder in flavor and has a longer shelf life.
- Elephant Garlic isn’t really garlic and is more closely related to a leek. It is very mild with a potato like flesh and its healing properties are inferior to other garlic varieties.
- Green garlic is pulled from the ground before the bulb forms and resembles a thin leek stalk. It is favored in Italian cooking and has a mild, fresh, sharp flavor that is fleeting and herblike rather than lastingly pungent.
- Scapes are the thin green extensions of the stalk of the hardback garlic. It is sent up from the bulb as it begins to grow and forms a 360-degree curl with a small bulbil or swelling on its end. They have a mild fresh flavor and delicious used just as you would garlic cloves.
- Choose bulbs that are completely dry with plump, firm cloves; bigger doesn’t mean better
- Garlic should not have a strong smell, which would mean that the bulbs were damaged and overly manhandled.
- Give the bulb a gentle squeeze and avoid soft or crumbly cloves; spongy or shriveled cloves; bulbs or cloves with green shoots (past their prime).
- Preminced garlic in jars that you buy in the supermarket has been acidified to keep it safe and usable and are not recommended.
- Peeled garlic cloves have had their skin removed by blowing air. When buying look for pearly white, firm cloves with no shriveling and no mold. Read the label to be sure that there are no other untoward ingredients. Unfortunately pre-peeled garlic sits out too long to produce health promoting compounds or to be garlic.
- China is now responsible for 80% of the world production. Unfortunately this garlic is full of pesticides and usually bleached to make the bulbs look perfectly white. Most disturbing is that it is believed to be fertilized with untreated human feces.
Store garlic bulbs in a cool, dry place where air can circulate. Never store garlic in a plastic bag, and keep it out of the refrigerator, unless you have a low-humidity drawer. Garlic will last a couple of months if you keep the cloves intact instead of breaking them apart, and about 10-12 days once it’s been broken down.
It is not recommended to store peeled or chopped garlic under oil (even in the fridge) because it encourages the growth of deadly botulism bacteria, which thrive in the absence of air. Although the flavor might lessen, garlic can be frozen whole peeled in a freezer bag or puree with olive oil and freeze overnight in ice cube trays. Then put the cubes in a freezer bag and use as needed.
Garlic is an excellent source of vitamin B6 (pyridoxine). It is also a very good source of manganese, selenium, and vitamins. In addition it is a good source of other minerals, including phosphorus, calcium, potassium, iron and copper.
And now we’re going to get a little geeky …
Many of its perceived therapeutic effects are thought to be due to its active ingredient – allicin. Although it isn’t actually in garlic – it’s created when a sulfur based compound (alliin) comes together with an enzyme (alliinase) as garlic cloves are under attack. These compounds exist separately in the garlic when it is whole. Cutting garlic ruptures the cells and releases these elements, allowing them to come in contact and form the powerful new compound called alliicin. Alliicin is the culprit behind its pungent aroma. In nature it’s the culprit against soil pathogens and in the kitchen it’s what’s responsible for the touted health benefits of garlic.
- Garlic may lower blood pressure in people with hypertension mainly through its ability to widen blood vessels.
- Modern research has focused on garlic’s potential to reduce the risk of heart disease, cholesterol levels and cancer.
- Garlic has been thought to fight infections and enhance immune function.
- Scientists believe the the natural compounds in garlic help protect against osteoarthritis and fend off the breakdown of joint cartilage and bone.
- Garlic functions as a prebiotic, food for beneficial bacteria in the gut tied to immunity and a positive mood.
- Garlic supports brain health, lowering the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Garlic may help prevent heavy metals from entering the body.
Best ways to prepare garlic:
To get the most health benefits from garlic, crush fresh garlic and let it sit at room temperature for 5-10 minutes. Waiting 5-10 minutes allows the health promoting alliicin to form – it’s worth the wait! Using garlic immediately after mincing will not provide the full garlic flavor or the health benefits. Allowing it to sit out too long will also diminish the alliicin and make it unstable and resistant to the heat of cooking. When crushed garlic was heated, its ability to inhibit cancer development in animals was blocked; but when the researchers allowed the crushed garlic to sit for 10 minutes before heating, its anticancer activity was preserved.
- 5-15 minutes – minimal loss of nutrients
- 15-30 minutes – moderate loss of nutrients
- 45+ minutes – substantial loss of nutrients
Garlic is an ingredient used extensively in Italian food in both cooked and raw forms. Raw garlic, although healthier, should be used with care; a mere clove is a sufficient addition to a vinaigrette or a marinade. The finer garlic is chopped, the stronger the flavor. When sautéed or roasted, garlic’s flavor sweetens and becomes much less abrasive. Add garlic to sautéed greens and other vegetables, stir-fry, soups stews and roasts. Garlic is also wonderful roasted. If you are reluctant to flavor your dish with too much garlic, simply heat the whole clove of garlic in EVOO over medium heat and remove it when it has turned a light golden color. The oil will have taken on a light garlic flavor and anything cooked in that oil will pick up a light garlic fragrance. Be sure not to let the garlic get too dark or burn or it will be very bitter and unfavorably affect the flavor if the dish.
Sometimes a green or white germ (sprout) grows in the center of the garlic. As the garlic ages, the germ turns green and develops unpleasant bitter, acrid flavor. Chef’s will always remove the germ before mincing, especially if you plan to use garlic raw or quickly cooked.
One more important thing to note:
Individual reactions to garlic vary, and garlic can cause bad breath for hours after eating. One study has shown that eating raw apples or lettuce can remedy garlic breath.
Some people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can have bloating and digestion issues after eating garlic. Studies have found that eliminating foods like garlic can help clear up those issues, so it’s worth talking with your doctor if you think that might be an issue.
Check out this great post written by Gerard Paul, founder of ManyEats: