Does the Way You Prep Garlic Impact Its Flavor?
Sliced, diced, crushed, confited, roasted, and boiled whole: There are seemingly a zillion ways to prepare garlic, that beloved staple of so many great cuisines. But are you preparing it correctly for your needs? We reached out to a garlic-loving chef for the lowdown.
If you like to cook, garlic can be a source of endless fascination. Maybe you’ve just learned how easily it burns, or you’ve made your own creamy, unctuous roast garlic for the first time. Perhaps you want to know how to confit it, or you just want to know how to slice it evenly.
Missy Robbins, Michelin-starred head chef and owner of Lilia in Brooklyn, New York, told me, “Garlic happens to be my favorite topic!” She added, “I always feel bad when people come in who don’t want garlic in their food; it’s in almost every dish on the menu.” Her cooks slice garlic by the quart—using mandolines to get it very thin—but she also has them chop it, confit it, and turn it into garlic chips for crunchy garnishes. Suffice to say, she’s a fan. Robbins walked me through a few of garlic’s most popular preparations, explaining how each affects its taste.
Slicing garlic is a good way to get “the essence of garlic,” says Robbins, without it being overwhelming. She’ll slice it the long way on a mandoline and store it in oil—but only for a day—then pluck out slices as she needs them, sweating them over very low heat “to bring out the perfume in it.”
Keep in mind that with this preparation, you typically don’t want garlic to get browned; “there are very rare instances when I put color in garlic,” says Robbins. “What you’re looking for is more aroma than color: When you start to smell the garlic, that’s when to add the other ingredients.” That said, she qualifies, if you’re sweating onions and garlic together, you want to cook your onions three quarters of the way, then add the sliced garlic, so it “sweats but doesn’t get burned.” Burned garlic is acrid and can ruin a whole dish.
Chopped or minced garlic will lend “kind of your most classic garlic profile when you’re looking for pungent,” says Robbins. She’ll mince when she wants garlic to coat the other ingredients—whether chopping it for an Italian vinaigrette intended to slick greens or incorporating into a sauce. It makes sense if you think about it: You wouldn’t want slices of garlic floating around in a tomato sauce.
When mincing, keep in mind that you don’t want to overwork the cloves. Robbins is strict with her staff, having them slice garlic first on a mandoline, then julienne it—cut it finely—into a mince. “We’re not chopping the s*&^t out of it,” she says. “A lot of people will smash, then cut,” but that releases a lot of oil right on to the cutting board, getting the garlic wet and making its texture less even. “We don’t advocate throwing it on a board and chopping it randomly,” says Robbins. Why? “When you’re sweating anything out like that, you want it really evenly cut,” lest some pieces burn, and others do not. Again, think about using very low heat—maybe even with the burner off—when cooking minced garlic.
The “most mild version” of garlic cookery will deliver an unexpected sweetness, says Robbins. She peels a ton of garlic, cooking it very, very slowly on the stovetop over low heat for hours in canola oil, chicken fat, or duck fat. (This technique is called confiting.) The cloves don’t pick up much color with this method, but they become very soft, sweet and delicate. You’ll want to do what Robbins does: Smash them and throw them in cannellini bean dishes, add them to pastas, or spread them on focaccia.
Roasting garlic is a technique similar to confiting, but you typically do it in the oven (or Instant Pot!), adding olive oil to a whole head, then wrapping it up tightly, so the cloves become golden brown and very plush. Flavorwise, this will be “deeper, darker, more intense, a little less sweet” and occasionally a little more bitter than confiting garlic, says Robbins. She’ll use whole cloves of roasted garlic in chicken marinades, sometimes adding water to the bottom of the roasting pan so it steams and roasts at once—not getting so dark.
Watch: How to Make Instant Pot Roasted Garlic
In Northern Italy, where Robbins trained, she would often see people smashing or crushing garlic cloves, adding them to sauces or oils, and removing them before serving a dish. “If you want a mild garlic flavor and you’re just gonna throw a couple cloves in your sauté to perfume your oil or chicken stock or something like that,” says Robbins, crushing is the way to go.
Boiling cloves of garlic can help remove its bitterness and pungency. You could bring cloves to a boil in cold water, changing out the water three times, then add those whole boiled cloves to cream to infuse it, creating a garlic cream, says Robbins, then discarding the cloves. “You’re pre-cooking it,” she says. “Some people also do that with milk.” It’s a very mild way to add a garlicky note.
So there you go: All the ways to eat more garlic, just in time for cold season!
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.