A guide to Garlic
Discover why garlic is one of the most indispensable ingredients around the world.
What is garlic?
Although garlic is one of the world’s most popular and indispensable ingredients, one of the most commonly asked questions still remains: “is garlic a herb, spice or vegetable?” Well, despite garlic being widely used as a herb or spice in cooking, it’s botanically a vegetable – an edible bulb from a plant in the lily (or allium) family, which also includes onions, scallions, leeks, chives and shallots. Garlic is covered in an inedible, somewhat papery skin, and is made up of individual sections, called cloves. The colour of garlic and the number of cloves it contains can vary depending on the type or variety.
Where does garlic come from?
Garlic has been used all over the world for thousands of years for both its health and medicinal properties. It’s believed that it was even being used when the Giza pyramids were being built – 5,000 years ago – where it was worshipped by Egyptians as a God and even used as local currency. During the reign of King Tut, 15 pounds of garlic would buy a healthy male slave.
The perennial plant is native to central Asia, specifically to the southeast of Siberia, but it also grows wild in Italy and southern France. Most varieties of garlic actually thrive in colder climates and are available fresh or dried.
Did you know? China is the world’s largest producer of garlic, contributing to 80% of the world’s supply. India ranks in second place, only producing one-eighth as much, followed by the Republic of Korea and the United States.
Source: Produce Report
What does garlic taste like?
When eaten raw, garlic is powerful, pungent and slightly bitter, and for some, too much to handle, especially in your mouth and breath. In the 14th century, a Spanish king actually decreed that knights who had eaten garlic had to wait four weeks before they could appear in court. That’s why it’s usually cooked in some way before serving, to mellow the flavour. When sautéed or baked, garlic actually tastes very mild and sweet. Roast it, and it’s even sweeter, almost caramelly with a gentle nuttiness. To release its most potent flavour, garlic is crushed or minced very finely. If you slice or dice it, you’ll get a more subtle flavour. If you really want your dish to pack a punch, you should add garlic in the final stages of cooking. So in a nutshell, the more you chop it, the stronger the flavour and aroma.
What are the different types of garlic?
While many recipes don’t specifically state what kind of garlic you should use, knowing the different varieties can help you experiment with the flavours and nuances of each type when cooking. So here’s a bit more information on the most commonly used varieties.
Hardneck garlic tends to have more flavour than other varieties and usually contains four to 12 cloves in each bulb. You’ll be able to spot hardneck garlic by its tough, woody, central stalk and a long flowering stem (or scape) that loops and curls. Porcelain, Rocambole, Creole, and Purple Stripe varieties are all part of the hardneck family.
Rocambole garlic is one of the most widely grown hardneck varieties and a favourite amongst many chefs. It’s known for its hot, robust, well-rounded, “true” garlic flavour. It works excellently in any dish where garlic is the star of the show, like garlic bread and garlic butter. And particularly shines when roasted and incorporated into bold dishes like braised lamb shank. When sweated in olive oil, rocambole garlic turns sweet and slightly nutty. It also adds a gorgeous richness to vinaigrettes, so it’s definitely worth drizzling on top of your side salad.
Porcelain garlic, or white garlic, is another classic hardneck variety with four to six huge cloves per bulb. In fact, people often mistake porcelain for elephant garlic because it’s cloves are so large. It’s easy to peel and quite similar to rocambole in flavour, with a medium to strong garlic taste that holds up well in cooking – making it a great all-purpose garlic. The plump bulbs of porcelain garlic make it perfect for roasting or barbecuing. Music is a type of porcelain garlic that’s slightly sweeter than other porcelains, and works particularly well with fish and chicken.
Creole garlic has exceptional flavour – sometimes sharp with a burst of heat that fades quickly, giving you a pleasant aftertaste. They have small, vibrant cloves, ranging from a beautiful light pink to deep purple or red colour and contain eight to 12 cloves per bulb. Like porcelain garlic, creole keeps its rich garlicky flavour well when cooked, and can generally be stored fresh from seven to nine months.
Purple stripe garlic stores slightly longer than rocambole and are easy to peel. With a strong, rich garlicky flavour, they’re perfect for roasting, and once baked, deliciously sweet and nutty – heavenly with a warm loaf of sourdough. Purple stripes are beautiful to look at too, with (unsurprisingly) a bright purple bulb, containing eight to 12 cloves. Chesnok red is a variety of purple stripe with a full garlic flavour. It’s also one of the best roasting garlics with a sweet, smooth creamy finish.
Black garlic’s origins are shrouded in mystery but it’s been gaining culinary popularity in the West over the last decade. It’s made by fermenting whole bulbs of garlic at a high temperature, a process that changes both the colour and flavour, resulting in a bulb covered with brown, papery skin encasing dark black cloves. It has a complex but recognisable garlic taste, with rich plummy undertones and hints of balsamic vinegar, soy sauce and also tamarind. It’s often used by cooks to deepen and intensify flavour in a dish and has a tender, chewy texture which some liken to soft dried fruit, like prunes. Black garlic is used to flavour a lot of Asian cuisines and in Korea it’s widely eaten for its health benefits because it’s loaded with antioxidants (twice as many as standard white garlic). If you want to add richness to your dish, add black garlic. It’s particularly well suited to casseroles, soups and meat dishes, particularly chicken. It’s also a great addition to mashed potato (just dissolve a few cloves in hot water) bruschetta (when puréed) and on top of a pizza. You can also dice and mix it into an olive tapenade to make a delicious spread for bread or fantastic garnish for meat and fish dishes. If you want to add a rich sweetness to your pasta sauce add a finely chopped clove (or two) of black garlic. This method is great for dips too, especially in aioli. Black garlic also gives a natural sweetness to salad dressings. And isn’t just for use in savoury dishes, black garlic is also great in desserts, pairing incredibly well with chocolate, or even a balsamic glaze for fresh fruit. Black garlic chocolate cake with raspberry sauce, black garlic chocolate chip cookies and black garlic chocolate chunk ice cream are just a few delicious dessert recipes to try. Finally, unlike raw white garlic, black garlic has no acrid bite, so use it in your next date-night recipe to avoid bad breath.
Wild garlic, also known as ramps, bear’s garlic, devil’s garlic and even stinking Jenny, looks like a cross between a leek and a garlic plant, with a strong oniony aroma. The abundance of wild garlic in the UK countryside (which has an unmistakable garlicky scent) is taken full advantage of by chefs, who use it to flavour a variety of different dishes despite its short season – from mid March to late June. The taste of wild garlic differs from traditional bulb garlic, with a more mellow, somewhat grassy flavour (more like a punchy spring onion) and the whole plant is edible, raw and cooked. Its delicate white flowers that form clusters on top of its vibrant green leaves are often added to salads and other dishes as a pretty garnish. The stems are deliciously sweet and can be used as a thick chive. The seeds can be pickled or sprinkled over salads. While wild garlic’s leaves make a tasty addition to cheese, pâté, chicken and even peanut butter sandwiches. They can also be blended to make a delicious garlic butter, hummus, or salsa verde. Combine wild garlic leaves with parmesan, garlic, lemon and pine nuts for a delicious homemade wild garlic pesto to add to pasta, salads or soups. The leaves also work wonders in an omelette or frittata, or mixed in with a plate of buttery scrambled eggs. They’re also delightful in a spring risotto and potato soup, or mixed with jersey royal potatoes with some olive oil and a few sprigs of rosemary.
Clay garlic bulbs were placed in Egyptian tombs and pyramids for the dead to use in the next life. While Ancient Greeks travelling on long journeys would bury garlic at crossroads as a dinner for Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, ghost, and necromancy, to gain her trust and protection. Greek midwives hung garlic cloves in birthing rooms to keep the evil spirits away. And in Central European folklore, it was believed that garlic could ward off devils, werewolves, and vampires.
How to cook with garlic: roasting, sautéing and frying
Garlic is an incredibly versatile vegetable adding wonderful flavour to hundreds of recipes. And there’s a number of different ways you can use it in your cooking. Here’s some of the most common methods.
Garlic is delicious when roasted and it smells heavenly too. Keep the bulb whole (including the skin) and cut off approximately 1/4 inch off the tip to expose the tops of the garlic cloves. Place the garlic bulb on some kitchen foil and then drizzle it with one to two teaspoons of olive oil or vegetable oil, letting it sink in between the cloves. Then season with salt and pepper before sealing the aluminium foil around the bulb to create a parcel. Put the wrapped bulb in a baking dish and then place it into a preheated oven (350°F, or 160°C in a fan oven) and roast for about 40 minutes to an hour (exact roasting time will depend on the size of your garlic and the variety). You’ll know when the garlic is done, as you’ll be left with deliciously sweet and meltingly tender cloves that you can pop right out of their skins. The perfect accompaniment to your Sunday roast, a smooth buttery treat to spread over warm or toasted bread, and simply delicious added to soups and stews.
Sautéing is probably the most common method used for cooking garlic, producing a delicious base for many favourite dishes, while bringing out garlic’s wonderfully nutty, rich and savoury flavour. And it’s quick too. If you’re sautéing garlic over a medium heat it shouldn’t take long at all – about 30 seconds. You can sauté garlic in olive oil or butter, but if you use butter be careful as it burns faster than oil. Simply chop the garlic and add one to two tablespoons of olive oil or one knob of butter (2-3 tablespoons) to your frying pan over a medium heat and then toss in the garlic, making sure you keep stirring with a wooden slotted spoon to stop it from burning. You’ll know when it’s done because your kitchen will be filled with a delightful garlicky aroma and your garlic will turn golden. You’ll also know if it’s overcooked because your garlic will have a bitter flavour. Top tip: If your recipe contains other vegetables that also need to be sautéed and take longer to cook, like onions, sauté them first before adding the garlic.
Fried garlic is often used in Thai cuisine adding a fragrant aroma and kick to noodles and other soups. You can fry it in a deep pan in some oil, but it’s just as effective and convenient in a microwave. Mince four to five cloves of garlic with a knife, or crush into a garlic press. Place the crushed garlic into a microwavable bowl along with two tablespoons of olive oil, or just enough to cover the garlic. Heat for 30 seconds to two minutes depending on the wattage of your microwave. You’ll know when it’s ready because you’ll be left with a gorgeous golden colour. If you decide to use a pan, fry the cloves until they are lightly golden, then turn off the heat. The hot oil will then continue to fry the garlic until it turns golden brown.
If you’ve got a lot of garlic on your hands and you want to keep it, try pickling. Combining 300g of garlic with cider, white or red vinegar, mustard or fennel seeds, sugar and peppercorns, will turn your leftover garlic cloves into a tangy pickle – perfect alongside cheeses and cold meats on a charcuterie board, mashed into potato or stirred into noodles or steamed rice. It’s also delicious on sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers and pizzas.
How to prepare garlic: peel, crush, mince or mash?
The more you damage garlic’s cell walls, the more pungent the flavour. Since crushing breaks the most cells, preparing garlic in this way will give you stronger tasting cloves, while sliced or chopped cloves will taste milder. Keep the cloves whole and you’ll get the mildest garlic flavour.
You can peel garlic in various ways. Place the cloves inside two bowls to shake off the skins. Smash with the flat side of a large knife. Or simply microwave on a high heat for 10-15 seconds.
To crush garlic either use a garlic press (which means you don’t have to remove the skin) or lay the flat side of a large knife on top of the clove. Press it down hard with the heel of your hand to smash the bulb and separate the cloves. Then remove the skin and chop finely.
To mince garlic, trim off the root end of the clove and crush gently between the flat side of a large knife (the same method as crushing) to loosen the bulb’s papery skin, which should easily fall away. Then using a two-handed chopping motion, run the knife repeatedly over the garlic to mince it. Minced garlic works exceptionally well as a smooth paste in sauces and dressings and also stir-fries. Just turn the knife on its side and scrape the blade back and forth through the garlic.
If you want to mash garlic the easiest way is with a mortar and pestle. If you don’t have one in your kitchen cupboard, you can just use a large knife, following the same methods for mincing or crushing. Sprinkle the minced garlic with a pinch of salt and then press it with the flat side of the knife (or fork) and smear until it forms a paste. You can also try removing the cloves from the bulb and placing them in a sealed plastic bag, removing all the air. Then get a rolling pin and mash to your heart’s content.
Where to buy garlic
You can buy garlic in most supermarkets. It’s sold individually as full heads, or in a netted bag containing multiple bulbs. When choosing garlic, make sure it’s firm. You don’t want any soft or dry cloves. Also keep an eye out for sprouting, which is another indicator that garlic isn’t fresh. You can also buy garlic freeze-dried, as a powder and also pickled in jars.
How to store garlic
Whole garlic should be kept in an open container in a cool, dry place, away from other foods. Kept in this way, it should last for two to three months. If you separate the cloves, they will only keep for around 10-14 days. Don’t keep whole garlic in the fridge because the moist air encourages mould. You can freeze garlic whether it’s whole, peeled or minced. The easiest way is in whole cloves. Just separate them, remove the papery outer skin, place them in a freezer bag, squeeze all the air out and seal it closed. Stored in this way, frozen garlic cloves can last up to six months. You can freeze whole ends of garlic too, but it will take up more freezer space and it won’t be as easy to separate the cloves if you only need a couple for your recipe. Minced garlic can also be flattened and stored in a sealable freezer bag for up to three months. If you score indents with a butter knife it will make it easier to break off squares as and when you need them for cooking. With puréed garlic, you can simply add the mixture into an ice cube tray and cover with cling film to prevent freezer burn. Once frozen you can then pop out each individual cube and store them in an airtight container or freezer bag for three to four months.
If you’re cooking with wild garlic it only lasts a few days due to its high water content. So store it in the fridge wrapped in a damp kitchen towel and use quickly. Wild garlic leaves can also be frozen.
Substitutes for garlic
Garlic is an indispensable ingredient and therefore hard to replace. But if it’s absolutely necessary, you do have options. Garlic powder is your best bet, especially if you’re cooking sauces, soups and stews. Try ½ teaspoon of garlic powder for every large garlic clove, or if your clove is on the small side, try ⅛ of a teaspoon. If you’re using garlic flakes, also called dried minced garlic, use 1/2 teaspoon in place of each clove. Garlic oil is essentially olive oil infused with garlic (and sometimes other spices), so it’s a great option if you want a milder flavour, especially for salad dressings and marinades. If your recipe calls for cooked garlic, you could try adding shallots instead. Afterall, they’re part of the same plant family and the most garlicky of all onions when it comes to both flavour and aroma. Just make sure you dice them really finely and substitute 1 tablespoon of minced shallot for one fresh garlic clove. Like garlic, if you overcook shallots they can taste quite bitter, so be careful during cooking. Chives also have a light oniony, garlic flavour and again belong to the same lily (allium) family. It’s not a perfect substitute, but works well in pasta, mashed potatoes and other vegetable dishes. Even better, use a variety of chives called garlic chives, which you can often find in Asian supermarkets. If you add fresh chopped garlic chives at the end of cooking, you’ll be rewarded with a fresh burst of garlicky flavour. Just bear in mind that garlic chives will have a stronger flavour than regular chives. If your recipe uses raw garlic, you could also try using finely chopped lemon zest as a substitute. Its lemony freshness is of course different to the pungent, powerful taste of raw garlic, but it will still elevate and lift the flavours in your dish in a similar way.
Does garlic have any health benefits?
Throughout ancient history, the main use of garlic was for its health and medicinal properties and science has now confirmed too. So adding it to your food can only be a good thing (apart from the bad breath). Garlic contains an active compound called allicin, which gives it its strong smell and distinctive flavour. Chopping or crushing garlic stimulates the production of allicin, which can help lower blood pressure, ease inflammation and even fight cancer. Garlic also contains a number of antioxidants that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. And they can also clear up your skin by killing acne-causing bacteria. One study revealed that rubbing raw garlic over spots can clear them away. Research has also highlighted garlic’s potential in reducing the risk of heart disease and heart attacks, while also helping to manage cholesterol levels. Although garlic’s health benefits are plenty, adding too much to your diet can cause discomfort, including upset stomach, bloating, diarrhoea and even body odour. If you take blood thinners, like enoxaparin, heparin or warfarin, taking a garlic supplement can increase the medication’s effect, making it harder for your blood to clot.
Black garlic is higher in antioxidants than white garlic and is rich in amino acids. Several studies suggest it has cancer-fighting properties and could even protect you from liver damage. Some black garlic can also help regulate blood sugar levels, containing a probiotic that can help stop the development of gestational diabetes.
Recipes with garlic
Garlic is a basic ingredient in cuisines around the world, so there are far too many recipes to list. Find our garlic recipes below.
More Ingredient Guides
21 January 2022
A Guide To Turmeric
Get the lowdown on this brilliant botanical, famed for its fantastic flavour and health-boosting benefits.
14 March 2022
Rice is not just rice
Everything you wanted to know about Rice. Learn the common types of rice, the history of rice and data about how much rice the UK consumes.