There’s a good chance that you’ve tasted garlic before. It’s one of the most popular seasonings or ingredients on the planet, found in cuisine from France to Thailand. For something that’s delicious and healthy, its popularity makes a lot of sense, but it’s certainly possible to misuse or even overuse this vegetable. So, what are the best ways to cook with garlic?
The first step to utilizing an ingredient to its full potential is understanding the flavors and qualities it imparts to a dish. We could just say “add garlic to this, it works well,” but you won’t become a better cook without a more established understanding of the ingredient and what makes it such an excellent ally in the kitchen.
Describing the flavor of garlic is a little difficult, because one of the reasons it’s so widely used is because the flavor varies based on how you use it. Raw garlic has a pungent, spicy quality from the sulfuric compounds, like allicin, that give garlic many health benefits. Chefs utilize this spiciness to add a bit of balance and even bite to an otherwise flat or fatty dish. That said, on its own, raw garlic can be a little overpowering, especially if the other flavors of the dish are a little weak.
Over time, any bitterness or spice in the garlic melts away, leaving behind an almost sweet, nutty flavor and a buttery texture.
As you cook garlic, that spicy taste mellows significantly. By removing some of the spice, you get the warmth that makes garlic such a valuable ingredient in the kitchen. You can take it a step further by roasting garlic in the oven. Over time, any bitterness or spice in the garlic melts away, leaving behind an almost sweet, nutty flavor and a buttery texture. Garlic truly is a chameleon in the cooking world.
With an ingredient as versatile as garlic, there aren’t many ways to misuse it. Sautéing is one of the most popular ways to cook garlic, as you’re both heating it and mixing the garlic flavoring throughout the dish. Of course, roasting garlic is always an excellent option, as the bulb slowly mellows and softens in your oven. You can use garlic raw in salad dressings or mix it with oils to infuse them with flavor. Also, many people use garlic in spice rubs like barbecue or other savory mixtures. Some even fry garlic.
Burned garlic has a very bitter taste.
If you do fry garlic, we suggest you do so carefully, as overcooking it is the main risk of cooking with garlic at high heats. Burned garlic has a very bitter taste. Also, if you’ve diced a clove very finely and overcook or burn the garlic, the pieces can get very hard, turning into bitter little pebbles that can be really unpleasant in your dish. So long as you’re keeping your garlic hydrated and cooked at the right temperature, though, it can be a fairly forgiving ingredient.
Garlic as a flavor pairs nicely with a lot of different tastes. The warmth and bite of spice that garlic offers gives it a depth of flavor that works with almost every other seasoning. Most green herbs and spices like basil, parsley, oregano, sage, or thyme play nicely with garlic, as do many varieties of onions. Ginger will also work well with garlic in the right combinations. Garlic can even be combined with acidic or spicy ingredients like lemon or hot sauce, respectively. Perhaps the most popular combination of garlic is with starchy, savory, or fatty flavors like potatoes, chicken, or butter. There’s something about the subtle acidity and warmth of garlic that balances and pairs so well with the filling and savory ingredients that often become the centerpiece of a meal.
Perhaps the most popular combination of garlic is with starchy, savory, or fatty flavors like potatoes, chicken, or butter.
Really the only main flavor category that usually doesn’t work with garlic is sweet. For whatever reason, likely that garlic leans too heavily into the savory realm or its slight bitterness, most sweet dishes don’t pair well with garlic. You won’t find many cakes or classic desserts that ask you to “lean heavily on garlic.” That said, there are ways to use garlic with sweet ingredients to make an interesting combination. For example, we mentioned earlier that garlic works well in barbecue spice rubs, and many of these also call for brown sugar. Also, if you’re a fan of sweet Thai chili sauce, you’ll often find that it includes garlic. What’s important in these sweet dishes is that garlic isn’t a main flavor component.
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We hope this helps you step outside of recipes to understand why an ingredient, in this case garlic, works in certain dishes and how you can make adjustments on your own. The greater your understanding of ingredients is, the better chance you’ll have of elevating a dish. Not only can this make a meal better, it can give you a real sense of pride at having created something wonderful. Garlic is truly one of those ingredients that, when used correctly, can take a recipe from good to simply amazing!