I love cooking with garlic, and cannot imagine doing without it. Few aromas elicit the deep oooohs and aahhhs in my kitchen like that of cooking garlic, especially when paired with the traditional olive oil.
Garlic’s characteristic flavor comes from a distinctive oil, diallyl disulfide. The amount of oil released from the garlic is determined by its handling — the smaller the pieces the garlic is chopped into, the more oil that is released; thus, the stronger the flavor produced. Pressing the garlic releases even more flavor than chopping. This oil, when exposed to air, can turn bitter or harsh, so it is not recommended to store large amounts of cut or chopped garlic for long periods of time before use.
Likewise, the cooking process affects the flavor of garlic. The taste of raw garlic is sharp and very pronounced. When garlic is cooked, however, it becomes sweet and very even, not so pervasive in flavor. When cooked very slowly, for long periods of time, it becomes very mellow and nutty tasting, not at all sharp or biting. When cooking garlic, keep in mind that it burns easily, so use only medium or low heat. If it turns brown or black, discard it and start over. Processed forms of garlic, like flakes, powder, or dehydrated garlic have little or no diallyl disulfide, and can taste bitter or acrid. Fresh is, no doubt, best.
The flavor of garlic can be heightened by the addition of freshly ground pepper, each complimenting and intensifying the other.
The flavor of the garlic can also be a factor of its species, the growing conditions, the time of harvest, etc. The largest garlic, known as ‘elephant garlic,’ has a much milder flavor than the smaller cloves, and its flavor tends to mellow more quickly or even disappear in cooking. This makes it a particularly good choice for using raw. Standard garlic that has been harvested prior to forming tight heads of cloves is usually known as ‘green garlic.’ It also has a very mild, fresh, delicate flavor.
Garlic is a seasonal crop, harvest in the U.S. begins in July. Its flavor declines slowly after harvest. Fortunately for us, its harvesting season is fairly long, and the availability is augmented by importing garlic, primarily from Mexico. Look for fresh bulbs with very firm cloves, tightly closed in a head, that haven’t sprouted. The inner skin should cling tightly to the cloves. Avoid yellowed, dried, or bruised cloves. The skin can be pure white or may have purple-colored tinges or stripes.
Garlic is best stored out of the refrigerator, but in a cool place. Always store away from sunlight, allowing air to circulate around the bulbs. It will keep fresh for four to six weeks. Canning garlic or storing it in olive oil is not recommended, as botulism has been found even in commercially canned garlic. Both canning and freezing can cause unwanted changes to the flavor and texture.
And what about that ‘garlicky’ smell on your hands? Try washing with a little lemon juice, or rubbing your hands with a stainless steel spoon and soap under running water.