How to Tame Garlic's Pungent Flavor

Daniel Gritzer

Few vegetables are as essential to our cooking arsenal as garlic, and relatively few savory dishes omit it entirely. But, despite the fact that it's almost always welcome, and despite its ubiquity in the kitchen, incorporating garlic doesn't always go as planned. A too-pungent kick or an acrid, nose-clearing intensity can throw an entire dish out of balance, whether the result is an irredeemably garlicky hummus, a salad dressing that ruins a beautiful head of farmers market lettuce, or a plate of gambas al ajillo that simply doesn't measure up to what you've had at your local tapas place. Here are some tips for getting the most out of your garlic, and taming its bitter bite.

Tips for Cutting

Daniel Gritzer

Garlic's characteristic taste and odor come from the vegetable's biological defense mechanism. In response to any cell damage, a molecule called alliin reacts with an enzyme named alliinase, producing molecules of an unstable compound known as allicin, which in turn breaks down into diallyl disulfide, the main component of garlic odor. The more damage that takes place, the more raw garlic odor and flavor are produced.

The good news is, you can tailor the intensity of that flavor by switching up the way you slice or chop your garlic cloves. For an in-depth look, pay a visit to Daniel's side-by-side comparisons of different garlic-chopping methods. Long story short: Using a Microplane to mince your garlic causes the most damage to the garlic's cell walls, producing a purée so intense that it could conceivably be weaponized, while a mortar and pestle will produce a weaker yet still pungent paste. Finally, mincing garlic with a knife will produce more discrete chunks, with a less intense garlic flavor than what you'll get through knife-puréeing—a tricky technique to master, but one that produces the most versatile result of all the processes we compared.

Applying Heat

Vicky Wasik

Everyone knows that cooked garlic will taste milder than garlic in its raw form, but a wide variety of flavors can be coaxed out of a garlic bulb, depending on what method you choose. Quick-cooking garlic will tame its bite up to a point, but you'll still be at the mercy of how you've chopped it up—the intensity of quickly sautéed garlic will be far stronger if you used a Microplane to chop it rather than a knife. Cooking garlic low and slow, on the other hand, will generally reduce its flavor to a mellow, almost bass note, making the way in which it's cut less relevant.

But there are a few other notable ways to get different flavors from your garlic. Chief among them is to roast whole heads in the oven, which results in sweet and meltingly tender cloves that you can pop right out of their skins. Use them in guacamole or as an accompaniment to grilled or roasted meat—you can just eat them like candy, too.

And then there's the somewhat esoteric black garlic oil known as mayu, often used as a topping for tonkotsu ramen. Mayu represents the extreme of applying heat to garlic to produce different flavors: Making it requires essentially subjecting the garlic to a controlled burn, resulting in complex flavors without the bitterness of garlic that's been burnt by accident.

Black garlic is also created through the controlled application of heat over longer periods of time, although, in contrast to mayu, black garlic isn't burned—just deeply, deeply caramelized.

Using Acid

J. Kenji López-Alt

The intensity and harshness of raw garlic can also be tamed by soaking or puréeing garlic in acidic ingredients, as Kenji discovered when trying to figure out the secret to Michael Solomonov's tahini sauce from Zahav. Despite incorporating a whole head of garlic, with absolutely no heat applied at all, the sauce doesn't end up with an overpowering raw-garlic flavor. Turns out, alliinase's activity is inhibited by highly acidic (or basic) environments, leading to fewer reactions that produce the harsh flavor compounds we tend to associate with raw garlic. Puréeing a whole head of garlic with lemon juice results in a mixture with robust but mellow garlic flavor and aroma, and none of the acridness.

Bringing It All Together

J. Kenji López-Alt

Knowing all this, you have a number of tools at your disposal to incorporate garlic into any given dish—and not just one flavor of garlic, but a whole range. For example, you can infuse your cooking oil with a bit of garlic flavor by tossing a smashed whole clove of garlic into a pan slicked with oil over moderate heat, pulling out the clove after a short while. You can use small amounts of minced, puréed, or even Microplaned garlic in meat marinades to impart some of its strong flavor. And you can blanch whole cloves of garlic in water, particularly before pickling or otherwise serving the cloves whole, to soften that raw flavor.

If all this attention to garlic seems a little overly fussy to you, look no further than Kenji's Gambas al Ajillo recipe for proof that it works. It calls for garlic to be added in three ways: The shrimp are marinated with minced garlic; the olive oil is flavored with smashed whole cloves of garlic before the shrimp are sautéed; and, finally, sliced garlic is added to the pan along with the shrimp. The result is a dish chock-full of flavor, and almost all of it comes from a simple bulb of garlic, treated right.

Even if you're making something as basic as a Simple Vinaigrette, your dressing can benefit if you know your way around a head of garlic. For a gentler flavor, let the garlic sit in vinegar for a minute or so to inhibit the effectiveness of its alliinase; for a sharper bite, skip that step and just mix all the ingredients together.