What’s the best way to prepare garlic: chop, crush or mince? And what about the little central shoot – should we discard that, as some chefs tell us to?
The approach you choose depends more than you might think on what you’re cooking, and on the role you want the garlic to play in it. Put simply, that’s because the more you process garlic, the stronger it will be. I’ll spare Hilde too much by way of spoddy science speak, other than to say that, as culinary egghead Harold McGee points out in his epic On Food & Cooking, when you cut into a bulb of garlic, it sets off a chemical reaction between two of the allium’s key components (allinase and cycteine, seeing as you asked), which in turn releases sulphur compounds. This means the less you damage the bulb, the less sulphur is released, which is why sliced or chopped garlic is nowhere near as potent, or indeed pungent, as crushed, and why whole bulbs stay so gloriously sweet after roasting.
But does it really matter, and should we care? Alastair Little, who, with the likes of Rowley Leigh and Simon Hopkinson helped reinvent modern British cooking in the 1980s, isn’t so sure: “I’ve always chopped, pounded, minced, crushed and pressed garlic with no particular logic,” he admits cheerfully, “and to be honest, I’ve never differentiated between them, except when I want to avoid small chunks in a dish.”
More recently, Little has become even more laid-back: “My current favourite method is just to grate the cloves, unpeeled, through a Microplane. You end up with finely minced garlic on one side, and the skin in your hand on the other.”
Oddly, the new generation of chefs seem far less gung-ho. “It all depends on what you want from the garlic,” insists Alex Jackson, chef/co-owner of Sardine in London, which majors in the food of southern France. “In Italian and French cuisine, it’s often included only as a background flavour, so my default is to slice it thinly lengthways.” This, he says, is what you’d use in Mediterranean soups, tomato sauces, soffrittos, etc: “It colours to an even golden brown when you fry it, then breaks down slowly, releasing a subtle taste that won’t overwhelm.”
For dishes that require more of a punch, Jackson chops his garlic finely – veryfinely if he’s using it raw: “That’s what you want for persillade or salsa verde, say.” For other “raw” sauces and dressings, however, he crushes it to a paste in a mortar (the flat of a large knife on a board with a pinch of sea salt will also do the trick): “You get a very fine, smooth, pale puree without any lumps.” But bear in mind this is pretty heavy-duty stuff, so use sparingly, “unless it’s for something that’s deliberately very garlicky, like aïoli”.
As for the central shoot, don’t worry about that unless it’s turned green, tough or is peeking out of the end of the clove, says Little, who earlier this year launched By Alastair Little, a homemade food delivery service in London. “If your garlic displays any of those signs, cut it out, because it will be bitter; otherwise, don’t bother” – a sentiment Jackson does agree with. Life’s too short as it is, anyway.
Far more important, Little says, is where your garlic comes from: “Avoid the Chinese stuff, which seems to have flooded the market in recent years – the cloves are way too small, and are over-strong. Look for European and homegrown crops instead: the Isle of Wight’s a big producer, and very good it is, too.”
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