Technique of the Week: Wrestling with Garlic

I chuckle to myself each time I begin to write about something that at first seems so simple, such as the recent post about cooking pasta. Let me stress the point that many techniques are indeed simple, with the right tools and a little practice. And even the harder processes get easier over time.

Yet, related to techniques that at their core are quite simple, there often are tips, tricks, or some key fact that you should know that will help you get a better end results, or speed up the process.

So as you'd expect, I have a few thoughts about garlic and how to peel and chop it. Let's also clarify:

Head of Garlic = The thing you buy in the store.
Clove of Garlic = The thing you break away from the thing you bought in the store.

  • The easiest garlic to peel has thick papery skins that peel away easily. Bad news: the skins are often thick and papery because these garlic heads are SO OLD. The freshest garlic has very thin outer skins, which want to cling to the garlic clove. *** See Note.
  • To prep garlic, break away the number of cloves you think you'll need. Trim the root end. Place the flat side of your knife on top of the garlic clove and pound it a bit with the side of your fist. The skin will break away from the clove, and will peel off easily.
  • Once skinned, the garlic clove can be left whole, sliced, diced or mashed.
  • I use my large chef's knife to slice or dice garlic. Paring knives seem to slow down the process to me.
  • To dice: make one cut through the clove parallel to your cutting board. Holding the clove between your thumb and forefinger, make perpendicular lengthwise cuts, but do not cut through the entire clove. Start the tip of your knife just short of the far (left) end of your clove, and cut through to the close end (right, if you're right handed). Slice across these slivers to create a coarse or fine dice.
  • To mash, if your recipe calls for salt, add some to diced garlic. Using a dinner fork, press the tines repeatedly into the garlic salt mixture. The can create as course or fine mash as you'd like, even down to nearly all liquid if you stay at this task long enough.
  • Throw away your garlic press. It's hard to clean.
More about that garlic press comment. Garlic can range from mild, to intense and almost spicy depending on how you prepare it. The more oils (liquid) that are released from the clove will determine the strength of the flavor. If you use a garlic press, you are guaranteed to have just about the most intense flavor of all.

My recommendation to gently smash the clove is the best of both worlds - it speeds up getting the skin off, but depending on how hard you smash the clove, you control how much of the oil you release. For the mildest garlic flavor, don't crush the clove much, or peel it without crushing.

*** Note: Rural Chinese routinely eat raw garlic, much the way we might eat an apple. In all I've seen written about that practice, I've never seen reference to the skins. So, my claim that the freshest and best garlic is thin skinned seems to hold. That, and buying about 3000 heads of garlic in my life.

Another note: China leads the world in garlic production - accounting for nearly 80% of all garlic grown. The US is 5th, with just 1.5%.

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