Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Garlic

When it comes to garlic, there's no wishy washy. People either can't live with it or they can't imagine life without it. For a bulb that fits neatly into the palm of one's hand, garlic inspires deep emotions across the spectrum worldwide.

Known as the "stinking rose," garlic figures into the lore, popular culture, history and cuisines many cultures from around the world. In the kitchen, it is a basic building block of flavor, the foundation of sauces, soups, marinades, spice rubs, curry pastes to name just a few. And what would a Caesar salad be without garlic?

What other vegetable inspires bon mots from all walks of life? A sampler:

  • "Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good." Alice May Brock (of Alice's Restaurant fame)
  • "You can never have enough garlic. With enough garlic, you can eat The New York Times." Journalist Morley Safer (1994)
  • "Without garlic, I simply would not care to live.
" Louis Diat, chef of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 1910-1951

Garlic provides so much food for thought that the late filmmaker Les Blank made a movie about it. His 1980 documentary, Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers, features interviews with several Bay Area garlic lovers including Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse restaurant, which has hosted a garlic festival every July since 1975. (P.S. The festival continues this year just weeks after the restaurant's after re-opening in June, following a fire back in March.)

One of my favorite lines in the film comes from a voiceover of a man (perhaps Blank?): "There's no doubt that after you eat lot of garlic, you just kind of feel like you're floating, ultra confident," the voice says. "You're capable of going out and whipping your weight in wild cats."

Garlic returns to the silver screen 10 years later in the 1990 gangster film, Goodfellas, directed by Martin Scorsese. Even when the wise guys (as they refer to themselves) are locked up in prison, they refuse to suffer without garlic, even if it needs to be sliced painstakingly with a razor blade. The scene is priceless.

And now, for the stinking rose report...

Brief History

Garlic is among the oldest cultivated crops, dating to ancient Egypt and China. It's mentioned in many ancient texts, demonstrating its important role in emerging cultures and amazing lasting power for millennia. Below, a small sliver of the formative years and garlic's impact around the world:

In his book, Mediterranean Vegetables, culinary scholar Clifford A. Wright notes that the ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote of Egyptian pyramids with inscriptions referring to the garlic that pyramid workers ate during construction.

Garlic is mentioned in the Bible (Numbers 11:5), when the Israelites reminisce about (and perhaps long for) the food they ate as slaves: "We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt for Nought, the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick." (Numbers 11:5) 

Cloves of garlic were found in the tomb of King Tutankamun when it was excavated in 1922.

Homer gives garlic a shout out in his Odyssey - Hermes gave garlic to Odysseus to protect him from the evil goddess Circe who turned men into swine. And it was duly noted by the likes of Aristotle and Hippocrates for its medicinal powers.

As documented in the The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, garlic got a mention in American Cookery, the first known American cookbook published in 1796. Author Amelia Simmons writes: "Garlicks, tho' used by the French, are better adapted to the uses of medicine than cookery."

Thirty-some years later, garlic makes a frequent appearance in Mary Randolph's cookbook, The Virginia House-Wife, published in 1824.

Factual nibbles

In India, garlic has long been revered for health benefits but considered verboten in the kitchen by monks and Brahmins (who see it as overstimulating and a distraction from meditation) and Jains (who oppose the violence of pulling garlic out of the ground).

California is the top garlic-producing state, accounting for more than 90 percent of this country's commercial garlic haul, most of which is grown in the central part of the state. For decades, the town of Gilroy, in the Santa Clara valley, has billed itself as the "Garlic Capital of the World," home to the renowned garlic farm Christopher Ranch and the annual garlic festival, now in its 35th year. But in the industry, Gilroy is known more as the hub for garlic processing (dehydrating, pickling) rather than fresh garlic production. In recent years, neighboring Fresno county has taken the lead in fresh garlic production.

The late great James Beard is a major force behind popularizing garlic in this country, when he shared his recipe for Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic in his 1974 book, Beard on Food. Nearly 40 years later, the recipe remains legendary.


Meet the Allium sativum, which boasts hundreds of varieties but is divided into two categories: hardneck (ophioscorodon) and softneck (sativum). Hardnecked garlic gives us the gift of garlic scapes, that tangle of green curlicued shoots that has become all the rage in farm-to-table eating. The shoots emerge above ground in late spring/early summer while the bulb continues to develop.

Mature hardnecks produce fewer but larger cloves; softnecks are reportedly easier to grow, more productive and last longer in storage - but alas, without the perk of scapes. Its early-stage counterpart is green garlic, young, soft bulbed garlic that is yanked early to thin crops but celebrated as a crop in its own right. With its soft white bulb of cloves still fused together and dark green top, green garlic is often mistaken for scallions and sometimes leeks.

Spanish Roja is an example of a hardneck variety, and one that ranks among the top three favorite garlic varieties in tastings conducted around the US. Examples of softnecks include Inchelium Red and Lorz Italian. All three of these lesser-known varieties are cultivated predominantly on small-scale farms. This is likely because they are quite labor intensive to grow, resulting in their being commercially unavailable. However, the subtleties of flavor between garlic varieties raises the bar for culinary expression, and we could all stand to get a bit more adventurous in our garlic choices.

Elephant garlic - a darling of supermarket produce sections in the 70s and 80s - favored for its mildly flavored, easy-to-peel cloves, is not a true garlic, but rather a type of leek (A. ampeloprasum).


Green garlic, which is by and large a farmers' market ingredient, makes its debut in late spring. By July, you'll start seeing head garlic at your favorite local food shopping spots, until the first frost or inventory runs out. Scapes lovers: Keep an eye out for those curlicues starting in June.

Environmental impact

Conventional garlic is not on the Environmental Working Group Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which means it's neither a model pesticide-free choice nor a major offender. 

Over the past few decades, garlic's toll on the environment grew as the result of the globalization of agriculture. Until the early 1990s, most supermarket garlic came from California. Now more than half of all bulbs on US grocery shelves comes from China, which fulfills 90 percent of US garlic imports. (Argentina and Mexico fill in the gap.) The overseas garlic might be cheaper but comes with a heavier carbon footprint, courtesy of the all the oil needed to ship it to market.


If you remain unconvinced about shopping at a farmers' market or farm stand, in-season garlic might be the game changer. Locally sourced garlic won't just be fresher and more robust in flavor; it will have a distinctive personality, depending on which of the many hundreds of varieties the grower has brought to market. At the supermarket, it's nothing but generic one-note bulbs; at the farmers' market, it's a symphony. 

What to look for

Green garlic should be just that - light green stalk and white bulb at the base, darker green tops - resembling a miniature leek. Stalks should be firm and free of discoloration and moisture.

Fully mature head garlic should have a paper-thin skin that covers all of its cloves, which ideally are firm and free of mold, bruises or any other dings. The tightness of the skin will vary depending on variety as well as age of the bulb (you'll notice that the skin loosens as garlic ages).


Long before it became a culinary star, garlic was used foremost as medicine and considered a panacea for sundry ailments, from impotence to smallpox, parasites to poor digestion. 

Athough it's a good source of Vitamin B6, C, calcium, potassium and even protein, you'd have to eat a cup of garlic to enjoy those benefits (1 cup contains more than 8 grams of protein, for example). But where garlic shines and what continues to intrigue scientists is its repository of anti-inflamatory, anti-oxidative sulfuric compounds being studied for treating heart disease, controlling the common cold and lowering the risk of certain types of cancer. Scientists continue to study allicin and alliin (just two of garlic's many disease-fighting sulfur compounds) and their potential benefits in treating both arthritis patients and those suffering from arteriosclerosis.

In Historical Perspective on the Use of Garlic, a 2001 paper published in The Journal of Nutrition, Dr. Richard Revlin, professor of medicine at Cornell Medical College and a champion of linking diet to disease prevention, makes an observation worth chewing on: "It is fascinating to observe how cultures that never came into contact with one another came to many of the same conclusions about the role of garlic in the treatment of disease. Garlic was used for laborers with a view to improving their work capacity. Garlic was recommended for pulmonary and respiratory complaints... Contemporary research is tending to validate many of the earlier views concerning the efficacy of garlic. Folk wisdom should not be ignored because it may teach us valuable lessons.

What to Do with It

If stored well, garlic has a long shelf life, so it's prudent to buy at the height of the season wherever you live and store in a cool, aerated place to keep during the off-season. (Or try growing your own! See tips below.)


At room temperature, head garlic can last for months.  It does not like humidity, which will invite rot - so keep out of the refrigerator. Green garlic, on the other hand, should be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in a towel or paper bag, and used within a week.

Growing garlic

It only takes one clove of garlic to produce an entire bulb. Plant in the fall in a sunny spot, pointy tips facing up, about 2 inches deep, 6 to 8 inches apart. Keep the skin on the cloves. The plant will go dormant in the winter but will resume growing in the spring. (You can cover with straw to protect during winter months). Harvest and dig up (don't pull) when the bottom third of the above-ground foliage starts to yellow.

Hang and cure in a cool, dark, well circulated area. You can also grow garlic in containers! Your pot must be at least 18 inches deep and 12 inches wide.

Cooking tips

As head garlic ages and dries (and shrinks), its flavor intensifies. It will also sprout as if preparing for the dormant months of winter, whether or not it's in the ground. That little green sprout (also known as a germ) imparts a bitterness, so it's a good idea to pry out before cooking. 

How to peel garlic: You can pry away the ends with a paring knife or you can press on a clove with the flat side of a wide knife. And then there's the bowl trick, as demonstrated by Todd Coleman (then executive editor at Saveur) in a video that went viral a few years ago. 

The optimal time to enjoy raw preparations of head garlic (pesto, persillade, pico de gallo, allioli) is during the summer, when it's newly cured and robust.

When you want the flavor of raw garlic but not the texture (vinaigrette immediately comes to mind), make garlic paste: Peel and coarsely chop a clove of garlic. Sprinkle sea salt (or your favorite coarse salt) on top.  Hold a chef's knife in your dominant hand and lay it flat on top of the garlic. Place the palm of your other hand on top of the knife and press down on the garlic as if you were smearing it onto the cutting surface, until the garlic is pulverized and paste-like.

Garlic burns quickly, so when cooking in oil with other aromatics such as onions or peppers, add it last in the series. When cooking a pot of beans, a whole clove of garlic adds a layer of flavor and can save the day when you're low on herbs and spices.

Here's a great tip from James Peterson in his The Vegetables: A to Z:

A lot of recipes make garlic bread unnecessarily complicated by suggested that chopped garlic be combined with melted butter and the mixture the brushed on the toasted bread. The easiest method is simply to toast the bread, rub each slice with a peeled garlic clove, and then just spread with butter or brush with olive oil. One medium garlic clove is enough for about six slices of bread.


Whole Roasted Garlic
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Peel the outermost layer of skin and place the garlic head in a small dish, root side down. Add about 1/4 cup of water (or just enough to cover bottom of dish), then drizzle top of garlic with olive oil. Cover with foil. Roast for 20 minutes, or until fork tender. Remove from the dish and allow to cool before handling, as the garlic will be extremely hot. Squeeze out of cloves and onto grilled bread, into sauces, folded into mashed potatoes or however you like it.

Leek and Green Garlic Risotto
Adapted from Local Flavors by Deborah Madison
The green garlic-leek sauté can be used as the foundation of a brown rice, quinoa or barley pilaf. Have fun with this combination and report back!
Green Garlic and Leeks:
4 medium leeks, white parts only
3 large heads green garlic
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup white wine
salt and pepper to taste

6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups Arborio or other short-grained rice
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 cup chopped chervil or parsley, and/or leftover green garlic tops
Zest of 1 lemon, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste

Quarter leeks lengthwise, cut them crosswise into 1/4-inch slices, and wash well. Remove any tough papery husks from garlic, then finely chop bulbs.

Melt butter in a saute pan. Add leeks and green garlic, stir to coat, then add wine and cook over medium-low heat until leeks are tender, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and set aside while you cook the rice.

Have stock simmering on the stove.

Melt butter in a wide soup pot over medium heat. Add rice and cook, stirring for 1 minute.

Pour in wine and simmer until it is absorbed, then add 2 cups of the stock. Simmer until it has been absorbed, then raise heat to medium and begin adding stock 1/2 cup at a time. Stir energetically and continue adding liquid after each addition is absorbed. Rice is done when tender with a slight bite, about 35 minutes.

Stir in leek-green garlic saute, cheese and herbs. Taste for salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Makes four servings, and terrific leftovers.

This post was originally published in June 2013.