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Ask The Food Lab: On Developing Garlic Flavor
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"How can I tame garlic's harshness?"
I am curious as to why my garlic scampi/snail butter/branzino with garlic and parsley recipes never taste quite right? The garlic is always too harsh, and the rest of the dish is missing that mellow garlic taste and tends to be greasy.
—Sent by CandiRisk
A great question, and the answer depends largely on two variables: the initial flavor of the garlic itself, and the way in which it's cooked.
Garlic are members of the allium family, and like most alliums, contain a number of pungent chemical compounds that attack our taste buds and olfactory receptors, inciting them to perk up and pay attention. They don't just have flavor on their own, they make other things taste better as well. At least to an extent.
If the garlic is too powerfully flavored or not cooked properly, it can end up being overwhelming, producing a harsh, almost chemical flavor and aroma that drowns out everything around it. The key to cooking with garlic is to tame this punch.
Remember two paragraphs ago when I told you that garlic contains pungent chemical compounds? Well I lied. It actually contains precursors to those chemical compounds within its cells. It's only after the cells are ruptured—whether via chopping, grating, or pressing through a garlic press—that these precursors can mix together, causing a cascade of chemical reactions that create that familiar garlic
So how do you tame that bite? There are two methods: you either wash it off, or you cook it.
Washing it off can be as simple as rinsing sliced or chopped garlic in a bowl of lukewarm water, picking it up with a fine mesh strainer, and drying it off before using. In this manner, many of the pungent compounds and their precursors end up staying in the water.
Alternatively, some recipes call for blanching the garlic in boiling water or milk before shocking it in ice water. With every blanching step, the garlic becomes milder and milder. This method is great for recipes in which you want to serve garlic whole or in slices, but without its signature bite.
Cooking the garlic by, say, roasting or frying it affects it in another way: its flavor changes as chemicals break down and reform into novel aromatic compounds. It also becomes sweeter as large sugars and carbohydrates break down into simpler sugars like fructose and glucose, both of which taste quite sweet to us.
Let it cook for too long, and you start moving out of caramelized/browned territory and into burnt/acrid land.
The key to really great garlic flavor? Use a combination of techniques. For any dish in which garlic is meant to form the flavor backbone—garlic bread, Spanish-style gambas al ajillo, snail butter—I'll layer the garlic flavor using multiple techniques:
- Marinate your main ingredients using some raw minced garlic mixed with oil and salt. The salt helps draw out flavors from the garlic, while the oil helps spread it around evenly. Go very sparing on the amount of garlic here, as its raw flavor will come out.
- Infuse your cooking oil with garlic. I do this by gently smashing some cloves, putting them in a saucepan, adding oil, and heating it up over a very moderate flame. The garlic gently sizzles, infusing the oil with sweet, complex, roasted garlic aromas, without ever venturing into burnt territorry. Afterwards I strain out the garlic and toss it, giving me a great flavor base with which to start my cooking.
- Use whole slices. In most cases, you want at least some amount of actual garlic to get into the final product. These slices, whole cloves, or chopped bits should be added relatively close to the end of cooking—just long enough to eliminate their harsh bite.
By layering garlic in this way, you create a rich, deep, and robust flavor that doesn't just hit the common low and high notes of garlic, but fills out the space in between as well.
As for your second question about sauces turning greasy, that's a simple matter of heat and emulsions. Emulsions—that is, a semi-stable mixture of two things that normally don't mix (like, say, fat and water)—are finnicky. Look at them wrong and they'll break and make a run for it. Heat is a surefire way to break an emulsion.
To solve this, make sure to reserve some spare butter and stir it into the sauce off-heat at the end of cooking. This pre-emulsified cold butter will help the sauce chill down to a more reasonably level, and to actually re-emulsify some of the sauce that's already broken.
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About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.