Garlic 101: Benefits & Cooking


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Garlic is not a subtle ingredient. It’s potent. It radiates through your kitchen. It makes an entrance, to say the least. But everything that makes it pungent also makes it flavorful.

Garlic benefits, uses, and cooking tips.

As part of the allium family that also gives us onions, it’s no surprise that garlic comes with a punch. And just like onions, which also start out bitter and then turn sweet, the intense bite in garlic softens once it’s heated and cooked. However, not before infusing your dish with tasty intense flavor.

So, how about that smell you get when you chop into garlic? That’s the enzyme called alliinase at work with an amino acid called allin.

Once you chop, mince, or crush a garlic clove, those compounds become friends, intermingle, and create something called allicin. That’s what hits your nose (or your palette if you were to bite into it raw). It’s also what gives garlic most of its street cred with health gurus.

Health benefits of garlic

Allicin isn’t activated until garlic is crushed or cut open. Meanwhile, heat can halt that activation. So when you cook with garlic, don’t be afraid to crush it and let it sit a little while before tossing it into your pot or skillet. This will help enhance both the flavor and health benefits.

Before people used garlic to flavor their food, they used it medicinally. Some studies have connected garlic to stronger immune systems and to shorten the common cold. Garlic supplements have proven effective in lowering high blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Fresh garlic also seems to have antibacterial properties, and in some studies, it was more effective than commonly prescribed antibiotics.

Types of garlic

Types of garlic laid out on a table.

Conventional garlic: There are several types of what’s considered conventional garlic, and they fall into two into categories; hardneck and softneck. Soft neck varieties include creole, asiatic, turban, artichoke (what’s typically sold in grocery stores), and silverskin. Hardneck garlic varieties include porcelain, purple stripe, and rocambole.

Elephant garlic: This isn’t actually true garlic, though it belongs to the same family as a garden leek variety. The large bulbs are connected to a long flowering stalk with leaves that look similar to those on leeks. The bulbs can be separated and used in cooking. Its flavor is much less pungent than actual garlic.

Black garlic: Black garlic is newer and trendier but also harder to find. It’s a dark purplish-gray color, with a slightly tangy note, and is sweeter than regular garlic. To get the most flavor, don’t mince it; leave whole or roughly chop.

Peeling garlic in bulk

There are two popular techniques for peeling garlic, however, I find that both don’t completely remove all of the skin, but they come close!

Peeling garlic in bulk using a mason jar.

1. Shake in a jar
Place whole garlic bulbs in a large glass mason jar (about a 32-ounce size). Tightly cover and shake for 1 to 2 minutes until the cloves come apart and most of the peels are loosened. Discard the papery covering then use your fingers to remove the remaining skin from any unpeeled cloves.

2. Shake in two bowls
Place whole garlic bulbs in two medium or large-sized bowls, flipped on top of each other to create a dome shape. It helps to have a lip on the bowls! Shake for 1 to 2 minutes until the garlic gloves come part and the peels begin to fall off. Throw away the skins, and shake another 1 to 2 minutes to remove more. Peel any remaining cloves with your hands.

Cook’s Tip: The papery skin can stick to the cloves after shaking, so just run the garlic under water to remove. Follow the how to mince garlic instructions once the garlic is peeled. If you’re just prepping a few cloves, use the peeling technique below.

Sprouted garlic

Every once in a while you might stumble across a sprouted garlic clove that has a green shoot popping out from it, or hidden inside. Although safe to eat, it’s best to remove the sprout to prevent adding bitter notes to a dish.

How to select and store garlic

Look for bulbs that are firm and that don’t have signs of decay. To prolong shelf life, keep the head of the garlic bulb intact even as you pop off individual cloves. Pre-peeling garlic will shorten the shelf life.

Store garlic in dry areas at room temperature and away from light.  Signs that your garlic is going bad may include turning yellow and green sprouts in the middle of the cloves.

Sauteing garlic and shallots in a cast iron skillet.

How to cook with garlic

Use garlic as a flavor base when sauteing meat or vegetables for various recipes, for example in this lemon pepper shrimp pasta. There are some key tips for cooking with minced garlic you won’t want to miss, like when to cut and add the garlic to the pan.

You can also roast garlic whole, which will soften the cloves and bring out a sweet flavor. Then you can mash them up with butter and make garlic bread, or use garlic to flavor sauces. I also make garlic mashed potatoes, and it’s always a hit.

Removing garlic smell from hands

Everything that makes garlic potent and yummy to cook with can also leave your hands with a pungent garlic smell days after you touch it. While it’s great for the kitchen, it’s not so great when it lingers on your hands into a Monday morning meeting.

You can clean your hands with baking soda to get rid of the garlic smell or try washing them with vinegar. If you’re desperate, try tomato juice, but one of the former should do the trick.

Hungry for more knowledge?

Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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Jessica Gavin standing in the kitchen

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16 Comments Leave a comment or review

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I have read that recently. However, I would consult with your physician about the use of garlic to help with candidiasis.

  1. Ronald Seto says

    Does garlic in granulated form or powder have the same nutritional value as fresh garlic cloves? When I use fresh garlic, I take a cleaver and give the clove a wack. This separates the garlic from the skin and is ready to use.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I think that because they are processed, they don’t have the exact same benefits as fresh (still some but not all). The powder still has alliin and alliinase (enzyme), but not allicin, that has some research about protective activity for immune benefits.

  2. Terry says

    Love your website Jessica, because you go into the science of food. However, the study you reference regarding the cholesterol lowering benefits of garlic was done 25 years ago, and more recent studies have debunked garlic therapy.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thanks for the heads up, Terry! Science and research are always evolving. I appreciate your insights!

  3. Judy says

    My family loves garlic. I like to roast it and spread it. Our youngest son doesn’t think mashed potatoes are worth the bother if there’s not garlic in them Thanks Jessica. You are my very favorite always. I go to your re pies before anyone’s.

  4. Jacqueline Bostwick says

    Lemon juice works well, also and makes your hands smell great. Don’t do it if you have any type of sore on your hand because it will sting like heck.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thanks for the tip Jacqueline, I will have to try lemon next time I mince garlic, on my cutting board too!

  5. Andre Cote says

    In one of the many cooking courses I have taken, one of the chef advised that :
    «You can also remove any smell from your hand by rubbing them with a stainless steel item, i.e. fork, spoon, or against the stainless stell sides of your kitchen sink.» It has prooven effective as well.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      I have heard this! Thanks for the tip Andre, I will definitely try stainless steel next time to get the garlic smell off my hands. I’m sure others will find it helpful too!