No doubt about it: Garlic is a food with personality. Depending on the variety and the way it’s used, that personality can range from pungently assertive to downright mellow. Three basic varieties of garlic are most commonly available in the United States: the familiar white-skinned and strongly flavored American garlic; the somewhat milder, purple-tinged Mexican and Italian garlics; and the much milder, very large elephant garlic. Here are some tips for using the bulb:
To break up a bulb of garlic, insert your thumb at the top of the bulb and pull away the cloves, one or more at a time. Or place the entire bulb, root end up, on a cutting board. Press on it with the heel of your hand until the cloves begin to separate.
Garlic is easily separated from its tight-fitting jacket using a knife. Place one or more cloves on a cutting board and press down on them firmly with the broad side of a heavy chef’s knife. The skin will separate, leaving the clove partially crushed and ready to chop.
To peel several cloves, do what chefs do: Spread out the cloves on a cutting board and place a heavy skillet over them. Grasp the skillet on either side and lean quickly and heavily on it, pressing down.
To peel garlic leaving the clove intact, try a gadget called a garlic peeler, a piece of rubber tubing. When you roll a clove of garlic in the tube, the skin separates and the clove comes out clean.
The more finely garlic is chopped or crushed, the stronger its flavor. A garlic press yields garlic with the most potent flavor: It releases the most oils from a clove because it ruptures the most cells. Some cooks believe it also makes the garlic taste bitter.
Sprinkle 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt from the recipe over the cloves. Smash the cloves with the broad side of a chef’s knife to crush the garlic, then chop, working the salt into the garlic. The salt begins to break down the garlic’s fibers, making it easier to blend into other ingredients. The salt also keeps the garlic from sticking to the knife or cutting board.
Garlic is at its most pungent state when it is raw. Its assertive flavor lends character to such classic preparations as aïoli (a garlic mayonnaise) and pesto. Because its flavor strengthens as it sits, raw garlic should be used sparingly.
Cooking garlic mellows its taste. For a strong garlic flavor in a cooked dish, mince the garlic and sauté it very briefly—20 to 30 seconds or until fragrant.
The longer garlic cooks, the more mild its taste becomes. Slow braising reduces the flavor of several bulbs of garlic to a mild, pleasant presence.
When you roast garlic, its natural sugars caramelize, leaving cloves so mild and creamy that they can be spread on bread and mashed directly into potatoes.
Store heads of garlic in a dark, dry and cool place, preferably one that allows air to circulate. Although not essential, a covered clay garlic keeper works well. Hanging garlic in a braid or keeping it in a bowl in a warm kitchen is fine for short periods but is not suitable for longer storage because it tends to dry out the garlic.
Removing garlic odor
If you don’t want to keep a separate cutting board for garlic and onions, you can deodorize a cutting board by rubbing it with salt.
To reduce the smell of garlic from your hands, rub them with salt and lemon juice. If gadgets attract you, you can buy a stainless steel bar that you rub over your hands to eliminate the odor. It’s said to break the ion bonds, releasing the odoriferous allium compounds from the skin, although cooks’ opinions vary as to its effectiveness. Using the bowl of a stainless steel spoon or even a stainless steel faucet in a kitchen sink also may work. Then wash your hands well with soap and hot water.