« Chicago Represents | Main | Soft Shell Crabs »

July 19, 2006

Deconstructing Garlic

Dominic Armato
The garlic press has always been a forbidden item in my kitchen.

It's a prejudice I've held for a long, long time. I've always believed that whether garlic is minced or crushed has a significant effect on the dish the garlic flavors. While I've always felt that minced or sliced garlic is far, far superior to its crushed counterpart when it comes to pasta sauces, I've also wondered in the back of my head if this preference was purely a figment of my imagination. Then, way back in January, a thread popped up on LTH Forum wherein there was a lively discussion regarding whether alternate means of breaking down garlic affected the character of the flavor, or merely its strength. The suggestion was also made that microplaning garlic, which I had never tried, might achieve a minced garlic flavor with a crushed garlic potency. At that time, I resolved to approach this question in a semi-scientific manner. It... uh... took a little while, but I finally got around to it this evening. As such, without further ado, I present my semi-scientific findings.

Question, Purpose, Hypothesis
The subject of this experiment is the effect that various methods of breaking down garlic have on its flavor when used to prepare a dish. The hypothesis is that not only does mincing garlic create a different flavor than crushing it, but also that mincing is the preferred method for pasta sauces. Furthermore, the experiment is intended to determine if microplaning garlic achieves a character different from mincing or crushing.

Dominic Armato
Materials and Method
The following items were used to perform this experiment:

• 1 8" Le Creuset cast iron skillet
• 1 wooden spatula
• 1 chef's knife
• mortar & pestle
• 1 microplane
• 1 measuring cup
• 1 measuring spoon
• Raineri silver extra virgin olive oil
• Carmelina San Marzano tomato puree
• 12 garlic cloves
• coarse sea salt

To simulate a real-world application, three quick tomato sauces were prepared, each utilizing a different preparation of garlic. The garlic used for each version of the sauce was made from four cloves of approximately equal size. The first sauce was made with garlic that was finely minced using a chef's knife. The second sauce was made with garlic that was very finely shredded using a microplane grater. The third sauce was made with garlic that was crushed using a mortar and pestle. Other than the garlic preparation, every effort was made to ensure that the sauces were prepared in exactly the same manner. A test batch of tomato sauce was first made and discarded so that all three sauces would be prepared with a warm skillet. The following steps were common to all three sauces. First, the pan was washed, dried and set over medium-low heat. 1 Tbsp. of the olive oil was added to the pan, and allowed to heat for one minute. The garlic was added to the pan and sauteed while being mixed with the wooden spatula. After 30 seconds, 1/2 C. tomato puree and 1/2 tsp. salt were added to the pan, the sauce was stirred, and the heat increased to medium. As soon as the sauce showed signs of bubbling, the heat was turned to low, and the sauce was allowed to simmer, undisturbed, for exactly five minutes. The sauce was transferred to a small prep bowl, the skillet was washed and dried, and the entire process was repeated for the other two garlic preparations.

Dominic Armato

When all three sauces were prepared, they were allowed to sit at room temperature for ten minutes. After this time, they were placed atop ramekins containing a scrap of paper identifying the garlic preparation used for that sauce. They were then covered with plastic wrap and allowed to sit at room temperature for approximately one hour, to lessen the chance of the order of preparation affecting the flavor at the time of tasting. After sitting for an hour, the finished sauces were microwaved for ten seconds. This was to achieve two purposes, first to heat them slightly, and second so that the microwave turntable could randomize their placement, making it impossible for the taster to identify which sauce was which. The sauces were then tasted in sequence twice, to lessen the variation caused by tasting one sauce cleanly while tasting the others having come off another sauce. They were tasted in very low light conditions, to make it impossible for the taster to identify the sauces by the very slight variations in appearance. A small piece of plain bread was eaten in between each tasting to act as a palate cleanser. After the tasting was completed, the prep bowls were removed from the ramekins so that tasting notes could be matched up with the appropriate garlic preparations.

Dominic Armato
The minced garlic sauce had a fairly strong garlic flavor, which was described by the taster as sweet, mellow and slightly tart and spicy. The crushed garlic sauce had a garlic flavor that was similar to the minced garlic sauce in terms of potency, but different in terms of character. The taster described the crushed garlic sauce as fairly sour up front, with a slightly spicy but mostly bitter tail and an almost metallic aftertaste. The microplaned garlic sauce was by far the strongest of the three, characterized as extremely potent. The taster described it as having a very spicy and peppery flavor, with a little bitterness and no detectable sweetness. In terms of preference, the taster expressed a very strong preference for the minced garlic sauce, which was described as delicious. The crushed garlic sauce was described as edible, but not very good. The microplaned garlic sauce was described as very bad, and not at all pleasant.

This experiment has helped to erase any lingering doubts I had about my convictions when it comes to sliced or minced versus crushed garlic. In fact, I was surprised to discover that the difference between the minced and crushed garlic sauces was even more significant than I had previously thought. The crushed garlic wasn't bad, but it was an obvious difference and far less desirable for any pasta sauce application that I can think of offhand. However, I think it's important to note that the crushed garlic flavor wasn't necessarily bad in general, it was simply inappropriate in this context. The microplaned garlic, however, was an entirely different matter. It was considerably stronger, to be sure, but it was also a very different character. It was not at all pleasant. While there are clearly applications for crushed garlic, I have a much harder time imagining a a recipe for which I'd use the microplaned garlic.

I await peer review.


According to Harold McGee in 'On Food and Cooking', garlic contains odorless (under normal conditions)compounds derived from the sulfur-containing amino acid cysteine. When the garlic tissue's cells are disrupted (cut, smashed, microplaned), this amino acid compound is brought into contact with an enzyme which converts it into molecules of ammonia, pyruvic acid and a mildly garlicky but unstable compound. This in turn breaks down into diallyl sulfide, the major and powerful constituent of garlic odor.

So garlic won't smell like (or taste like) garlic until the cells are disrupted and this chemical process takes place. Mincing with a knife will disrupt some cells, but leave others intact. Crushing and microplaning would disrupt a higher percentage of the cells, causing more of a reaction. Perhaps a little bit of the reaction's end product is a good thing, but too much is well, too much?

Perhaps the different methods of preparing the garlic create different levels of this reaction. The more you pulverize the garlic, the more of the amino acid is broken down and the more potent the smell/taste. Why then is the microplaned so much stronger and less pleasant than the crushed? Perhaps because the slices are so very thin that you are actually breaking the garlic down and exposing these two compounds in greater quantities... Don't know. Thought you might be interested.

This is an impressive piece of work. I have always thought mincing was far better than crushing, thanks for the validation. Keep it up.

My personal method is crush lightly with the flat of the knife and then slice what's left.

In this way you get some crushing and some slicing and you don't get big slices of garlic inthe food as the crushing separates the layers in the bulb.

Grating, micro or otherwise sounds foul, thanks for confirming that.

& garlic crushers are too wasteful, I think they are just for people who don't like touching the food they are preparing or see one in the shop and think that they are the thing to use.

Interesting experiment. I always mince, more out of habit than anything. I have a question though as to the final conclusion. Although in this test the tasters preferred the minced version, might it not be somewhat of an unfair comparison in that the different prep methods of the garlic require different cooking methods to bring out the best? It stands to reason that crushed garlic would have a greater surface area than minced garlic, this greater surface area might require a shorter cooking time (or just be better suited to raw applications) or smaller amounts of garlic to be used to yield a desirable end product. That's all. Keep up the good work.


Absolutely! I can think of a number of applications where I'd actually prefer a more bitter garlic flavor. Mostly, I just wanted to try to get a better grip on whether the difference in my head was reality or fiction. In the case of most pasta sauces, I DEFINITELY prefer minced or sliced. But I hope it was clear that I wasn't expressing an across the board preference.

Regarding surface area, it has certainly been posited that there's no difference in flavor, simply in intensity because the crushed garlic is broken down further. Admittedly, my observations on the subject are purely subjective, but I just don't believe that's the case. It's true, using similar amounts of minced or crushed garlic is going to (and did!) produce different intensities, but based on the blind tasting I don't think that's where the differences end.

Help! I am not a chef but I need some help. A long time ago, at a back woods resturant, my friends and I had a meal. Some of us ordered pasta with garlic and oil. It was so strong with garlic I swear we could smell it when it came out of the kitchen. Have tried many ways at home to duplicate that strength of garlic and pasta to no avail. Could someone kindly give me a recipe for garlic and pasta with a garlic strength that would knock my socks off? Garlic lover,

Heya, Wilmot!

A few ideas... I don't know what you've tried so far, so please don't be insulted if I suggest anything that is obvious to you :-)

If mega-potency is what you're after, first off you want to be sure that you're using the freshest garlic possible. Make sure it isn't anything that's been sitting in your cupboard ready to sprout, don't buy pre-peeled cloves (the oils evaporate more quickly once they're peeled), and processed stuff is right out. Also, consider that if you were in some backwoods spot that might have been picking garlic from their backyard, it may have been real honest-to-god FRESH garlic that they used. When garlic is harvested, the membranes surrounding the cloves aren't paper dry and flaky like they are when you buy garlic heads in the store. They're thick, moist, vegetal layers... similar to, say, the layers of a leek... and haven't yet dried out. If you use garlic at this stage of freshness, hoooooooo buddy, is it potent. Your best best for getting this stuff is probably a local farmer's market.

In terms of the cooking process itself, short of just using a TON of garlic (I wouldn't think twice about putting an entire head into a pound of pasta... I might think twice about using two heads, but it wouldn't stop me from doing it :-), a lot depends on whether you want a sharper, spicy garlic flavor or a mellower, sweeter (but still intense) garlic flavor. If all you care about is potency and spiciness, you could just grate a full head of raw garlic and mix it into the pasta right before you serve it. I can't say it's something I'd enjoy, but I doubt it'll be lacking for potency. In terms of balancing potency and flavor, however, I've had the best luck with slicing the garlic, but not too thin, adding it to plenty of olive oil in the pan, and then cooking it for a longer period of time... maybe 20-30 minutes... over very low heat. That gives the oil plenty of time to suck every last bit of garlic essence out of the cloves without frying the garlic and giving it a bitter flavor. If I want a really strong punch of oily garlic, that's usually how I start. Lastly, though I've never tried it, you could always start by making a garlic-infused olive oil, let that steep for a few days, and then use that as the base for your pasta (which will undoubtedly include more garlic). Recipes for garlic-infused oils are ubiquitous enough that I don't imagine you'll have much trouble finding one.

Hope that helps!

I have tasted a Puttanesca spaghetti at a restaurant that has become my favorite. The sauce has a very strong garlic flavor in it. I have prepared different dishes with "AMORE" garlic paste, and like it a lot, I consider that it imparts a different garlic flavor to foods than minced garlic, and both complement each other very well.
But returning to that puttanesca sauce, this time I purchased one litter of the product, which was given to me still hot. When I opened the container, I could find one chunck of tomato that tasted very strongly to garlic. I'm sure it's some kind of garlic marinating that is done to the tomatoes, perhaps for several days before preparing the sauce. It was the tomatoes that had the strong garlic flavor which I'm looking for, and not the rest of the liquids in the sauce.
Perhaps someone can help us as to how to marinate the tomatoes.

How many Garlic Cloves(Silverskin)do I need to make a 1/4 of a cup of chopped Garlic?

In your experiment, how did you control for garlic clove variation? You need to be able to rule out the possibility that the differences between your samples was caused by differences between cloves. A single particularly pungent clove could throw everything off.

Great post. It is fun to see all those chemicals in McGee's really do affect flavor. Did you slice the garlic with a Microplane (brand name) slicer or a microtome? The slices look so thin.

I didn't. It's never been my experience that there's much variation within a head (unless you're using a head that's getting old and some of the outer cloves are starting to dry out), but hey, perhaps that's an incorrect assumption on my part... add it to the error analysis :-)

The minced was done by hand, the microplaned (obviously) done by microplane, and the crushed was done with a stone mortar and pestle.

I've missed your blog since you left Chicago, I came across this via Khymos. FYI schwa reopened last week with a new kitchen staff supporting Micheal.

Jacob has the surface area argument backward, breaking down the garlic increases the surface area. Crushed garlic would have the lowest surface area and microplaned garlic the highest. Cooking miroplaned garlic is not a good idea.

I first came across the microplaning technique in Michel Richard's "Happy in the Kitchen." He microplanes the garlic into the dish at the end much like you would add chopped parsley or other garnish. Given the high surface area generated, this is a good idea, it emphasizes the fresh flavors of the garlic. The generation of such high surface areas will accelerate the chemical transformations Jenn reviews.

I use less garlic when I microplane, half a clove or so for 2 people, since I don't try to microplane off the ends of my fingers. I used microplaned garlic in my fresh tomato sauces last summer. I thought it added another dimension. I have also added it at the end to pan sauces to good effect. I still mince if I'm cooking with it.

And man, I have missed Chicago :-)

That's interesting, I hadn't thought about microplaning in a raw context. I'll definitely give that a try.

My recipe for oatmeal is:
1. Put half cup of the dry oatmeal in a small saucepan;
2. Add a cup of hot water and let it stand
3. Make a mix in a dish of cinnamon, turmeric,ginger and cumin.
4. Add a tablespoon of olive oil.
5. Add two crushed cloves of garlic.
6. Make a paste of the stuff.
7. Add the oatmeal to the dish and stir well.
8. Eat the oatmeal.

Notes: No lasting garlic odor.
The water is at a correct temp when you add it.
Too much heat kills the benefit.

Crushing the garlic in the mortar with a little salt and then adding water as you pound to make an infusion you leave to stand for 20(or so) mins is also yet another alternative, this produces a gentle but fresh, pervasive garlic flavour.

some time my mom make Puttanesca spaghetti and it is really strong garlic

As a rule, the finer you chop or especially crush fresh garlic, the stronger the flavour will be. This is because the flavour compounds are released by breaking cell walls. It is usually crushed with the side of a knife (which also aids in peeling) or finely minced and used to season other dishes, especially Italian and French recipes. You can also use a garlic press. But it can also be used in slivers or as whole cloves, with a much milder result. Whole cloves are often roasted, and as they cook their flavour changes dramatically to become sweeter and less pungent.

One way to avoid the problem of how much garlic to use in a recipe and how to prepare it without ruining a chopping board and smelling up the kitchen is to buy it precrushed or prechopped in a jar. This type of preprepared garlic keeps basically forever in the fridge or freezer, and the garlic odour can not penetrate the glass. It is milder and often sweeter than fresh garlic because the 'garliciness' declines slightly with time. Rubbing your hands underwater on any stainless steel utensil will remove garlic odor from them.

Thanks! I have been cutting corners with pressing garlic (the horror!) but wondered if that was not the same as mincing. They last sauce I made for chicken parm was OK, but not great and I"m thinking this may be why. Thanks!

I know it has been some time since the last post... But I thought I might add that many restaurants "cheat" with garlic dishes and add garlic powder to a simmering oil before creating a sauce. It's an easy way to add the intensity to dishes, and if the powder is of very good quality it can actually be effective. I buy my garlic powder from a local farmers market and it is quite amazing. The "garlic noodle" dish in some modern Vietnamese restaurants uses a similar technique. In my years of cooking I have found the balance by using roasted garlic puree (sweet & mild) (blitzed and strained), with minced garlic (backbone garlic flavor) at the beginning, and often correcting at the end with a small amount of micro-planed garlic (intense garlic flavor). It sounds cumbersome but with a decent mini-food processor it's a cinch to get all three with little effort.

Also... A quick other note: One critical step to a garlic oil pasta I've found is using a small amount of the cooking water for the finish because the slightly starchy water will help coat the noodles with the flavor.

Great experiment and article, thank you! It is impressive and helpful. However I'd like to point out three methodological problems, not to quibbled but to help move the conversation forward:

First the best way to prepare garlic might (and probably does) differ depending on the recipe. So for example the right preparation for an Indian marinade might be different than the best preparation for a pizza topping. I believe there is no universal answer to which is best, but rather it depends on the recipe.

Second, in a recipe in which two methods might work, different garlic preparations probably require different quantities. They aren't 1:1 substitutes because they taste so different. I assume that in the experiment you used the quantity that's best with minced, which probably translates to much too much for crushed or grated.

Third, a big missing piece is cooking tradition and personal preference. Some traditions favor bitter and intense flavors while other prize subtlety. So different tasters might agree with the descriptions of the differences between the flavors but each have a different preference. (however, I suspect most Americans would agree on a preference.)

The comments to this entry are closed.