Take a boring tomato sauce and throw in a small handful of minced (chopped fine) garlic and suddenly it’s got great taste. Take some sauteed vegetables and add some sliced garlic to the oil and, yum yum. Take nearly any savory dish and throw in garlic and suddenly it just comes alive.
But what garlic do I use? How much? And what about those vampire stories?
I've got answers to all these, and more (including an excellent vegetarian recipe for Garlicky Cherry Tomato and Bread Gratin).
Types of garlic
There are only two types of garlic: Elephant and white (actually, there is a Mexican garlic, too, called chileno, but it is hard to find, so let's not worry about it).
Garlic type #1: The elephant in the room
Elephant garlic is easy to distinguish from regular garlic because, big surprise, the stuff is big. As in, you spot some unusually large garlic, you can probably assume it is elephant.
Actually, elephant garlic is not really a garlic. In fact, it is a cousin of the leek. But people tend to mistake it for garlic and it is used like garlic, so let’s just acknowledge that, in real life use, it is garlic. However, what you need to know is that this stuff is quite mild. So much so that you probably don’t want to use it in place of white garlic when a strong garlic taste is desired, such as in garlic bread. But you can use it to add a nice, subtle hint of garlic in dishes when a light touch is preferred. Like when the in-law’s are coming for dinner. Unless, of course, the in-law's are Italian. In this case, use . . .
Garlic type #2: White on, well, anything
This is the real stuff: Strong, pungent, wonderful. You can find it in supermarkets, everywhere.
When you go to a store you buy what is called a head or a bulb of garlic. This bulb contains 10 or so cloves, each in their own wrapping. To buy fresh garlic, look for plump bulbs that are firm and have dry skins.
Then store your garlic on a counter top, not in the fridge.
Cooking with garlic
To get at the part you cook with, you separate the bulb into cloves. Then you remove the wrapping from each clove.
The wrapping is typically brittle, much like paper, and is easy to remove.
Each garlic clove will give you anywhere from ½ to 1 teaspoon of garlic, depending on how finely you chop your clove. Good to know when you are cooking for a crowd.
What about fresh garlic versus powdered garlic?
You can substitute powdered garlic for fresh garlic, but unless your powder is very fresh, it generally won’t be either as flavorful or as strong. I suggest using fresh when you can get it. Which should be pretty much always.
And what about garlic pungency?
The one thing you should know is that the finer you chop garlic, the strong it gets. Want to keep it mild? Use the cloves whole (in fact this is the theory behind roasted garlic where an entire bulb is drizzled with oil, roasted in a 450 degree oven for 30 – 40 minutes, then the soft cloves are squeezed onto a nice piece of crusty bread to enjoy). Want some real garlic punch? Mince ‘em.
What do you do to get rid of garlic odor?
On your fingers, just washing your hands should do the job. If not, try rubbing on a little lemon juice. But don't do this if you have any paper cuts!
As for eliminating garlic breath, sure you can try chewing fresh parsley, but it is far easier to just hang around with other garlic eaters. I do.
Does garlic really ward off vampires?
All I know is that I adore garlic, eat it often, and have never been plagued with vampires. So, clearly, it is working. Erm, yes. I think. Okay. Like the elephant gun. Although, I'd love to meet an elephant.
Vegetarian recipe: Jacques Pépin's Garlicky Cherry Tomato and Bread Gratin
One 5-ounce piece of day-old French baguette with crust, cut into 1-inch cubes (5 cups)
1 1/2 pounds small cherry tomatoes
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 medium garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1/2 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 375°. Lightly oil a 10-inch ceramic quiche dish. In a large bowl, toss the bread cubes with the tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, parsley, Parmesan and salt and pepper. Scrape the mixture into the baking dish and bake in the center of the oven for 35 minutes, or until the bread cubes are browned and crisp and the tomatoes are very tender. Serve warm or at room temperature.