Garlic Varietals: How to Find, Prep and Create the Best Flavor with Every Clove

Garlic Varietals: How to Find, Prep and Create the Best Flavor with Every Clove
Summer recipes do well with a kick of flavor to balance the hearty fruits and vibrant greens that grace your bowl. Garlic is one addition that is both versatile and inexpensive; from scape (stem) to root (bulb), garlic makes every bite more lively.
While the average grocery store carries only one varietal - softneck garlic, there are many more varietals that are worth exploring. Learning the differences in flavor can provide a pinch of something different in an otherwise traditional dish.
Different Types of Garlic
Traditional softneck garlic possesses the mellow white flesh we know and love. Although interchangeable in a range of dishes, this varietal is best suited for stir fries, creamy pasta and vegetable-based dips. Softneck works well with recipes that require a quick fry or recipes that match the heat with cream and other savory ingredients. They are noted by the lack of a hard, central stem and contain between eight to sixteen cloves per bulb.
Others boast a large profile, such as elephant garlic. Its individual cloves are akin to the size of an entire head of the softneck variety. Elephant garlic shines particularly well when slow roasted - the skin to flesh ratio being more in favor of the spreadable nature of caramelized cloves. Although technically a member of the hardneck family, it’s size distinguishes elephant garlic from other varietals. Each bulb contains no more than five cloves and is roughly two inches high.
Hardneck garlic is aptly named for the presence of the central stem, or neck. Although this varietal has only four to twelve cloves per bulb, each packs more punch than that of a softneck. The flesh and outer skin is often streaked with pink and purple when fresh and works incredibly well as an accompaniment for roasts, slow cooked sauces and freshly made meats and pates.
A Few More Roots (and Scapes)
Two uncommon varietals are black garlic and creole garlic. The first has gained momentum in western cooking although often found in Korean dishes. It is actually the same as any other garlic bulb but has been caramelized and fermented, resulting in a sweet undertone with a hint of vinegar. It can be shaved and served over poached eggs or served with mild fish. Although there are techniques for achieving this at home, we recommend purchasing the end product. See The Steamy Kitchen's recipe for black garlic and scallops.
Creole garlic is aptly named, for both its color and spiciness. Its vibrant reddish-pink flesh does well with fish and shellfish, married with rice or pasta, and can be a great addition if you’re looking for more heat in a given dish.
The last part of garlic we have yet to explore are scapes, or stems. These are beautiful placed atop grilled meats and fish or featured in pasta. Known for their curlicue tops and mild flavor, you can add them to virtually any recipe without worrying about overtaking the other ingredients.
How to Prep Garlic; Create the Flavor You’re Trying to Achieve
Knowing how to best flavor your recipe will determine your best strategy. Before you turn on the burner, garlic must be prepped accordingly - how you slice it matters.
Garlic is much like an onion - the more cells you rupture directly correlated to the intensity of flavor. Consider your current garlic technique - how much liquid emerges from your prep. If there’s a significant amount of weeping on the cutting board, chances are it’s going to be intense in flavor and heat.
Zesting or grating the clove ruptures the most cells. Achieved with a Microplane, it’s one of the quickest ways to reduce garlic to a pulp. This technique may be quick but it’s also likely to burn your tastebuds unless properly implemented. It is suited to dips and creamy sauces like mayonnaise - cooking is no match for the heat this brings. See Cuisinart's recipe for bruschetta.
There are several forms of garlic presses, some with a lever, some with a rocking motion. This technique is also high up there in terms of convenience, the concept being to push the clove through a sieve or grate. Although this still brings a bit of heat, it’s nowhere near to zesting. This technique works well with slow roasted sauces, soups or baked dishes. When selecting a garlic press, be sure to find one that is dishwasher safe and easily comes apart for cleaning. See New York Times's Cooking for garlic soup.
Mortar and pestles aren’t on every kitchen countertop (though they should be for their versatility). You would think that grinding garlic would rupture more cells than pressing but this technique surprisingly yields a mellower flavor than pressing or zesting. This works well in dips, quick fries, pastes or roasts although the texture will play a definite role depending on how the pulp is incorporated.
Chop & Mince
The classic chef’s knife does wonders; it by far produces the best flavor with minimal heat. Slice off the root end of each clove, smash the flesh with the flat of your knife and chop away. Although we love the convenience of the aforementioned techniques, this particular prep method is by far our preference.
As you likely assumed, all techniques above require peeling the clove prior to prepping (with the exception of the press if you’re in a hurry). If you plan to use all the cloves at once, the container method works well. Place the whole head in a shakeable, sealable container. Shake - a lot. The cloves will come apart from the bulb and the skins will peel off. Discard skins and proceed with selected prep technique. If you’re looking to use one or two cloves at a time, set the bulb on a firm surface and smash the heel of your hand on the bulb. The individual cloves will separate and you can prep what you'd like and save the rest for later.
Turning up the Heat
It is important to pinpoint the flavor you’re trying to achieve. As you begin to roast, fry, sauté, barbecue or even chill your garlic-infused recipe, consider whether you want a strong dose of heat or a melt-in-your-mouth softness. Garlic is dramatically affected by how long and how high the heat is. In a soup or roasted dish, the longer cooking time results in a mellower melded flavor. Cooking with high heat has the same result, although beware as garlic can overcook and burn, lending a chewy, off-flavor that’s difficult to pass off as intentional.
For dishes that require a kick, prepare and cook other ingredients until just shy of finished (about three-five minutes) and toss minced or chopped garlic in the pan, letting it sear and warm through. If using high heat, reduce the time to two-three minutes. The garlic should have spice and flavor-filled heat without tasting too green or burning the tastebuds.
You can also opt not to cook the garlic at all. Garlic can be an amazing component for dips and spreads. Pesto, non-traditional tapenade, or an herbed cheese dip; when married with creamy or herbaceous ingredients, the intensity melts into the other ingredients, forming a savory, delectable topping. As with any cold dish, flavors marry better over time. Allow to sit in the fridge for three hours, or overnight, for maximum flavor.
Thank you to our friends at Microplane for inspiring us with their sharp edges, Serious Eats for their endless knowledge, Cuisinart, Bon Appetit and The New York Times Cooking for their supply of delicious recipes, the Garlic Farm for information on the many available varietals, and The Steamy Kitchen for exploring unique ingredients including black garlic.
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