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  • Writer's pictureJere Folgert

How to Mellow Garlic's Pungent Flavor

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

The chemistry of garlic is complex and dynamic. Garlic's unique taste and odor come from a built-in biological defense mechanism; This is true biological warfare! If garlic is damaged by a pest, or cut, diced, or crushed, cell damage occurs. In response to cell damage, a molecule in the cells, called alliin, reacts with an enzyme named alliinase, resulting in a form a thiosulfinate known as allicin.

You can significantly reduce garlic’s intensity by neutralizing alliinase. The way to do this is with heat. By cooking garlic at temperatures above 140 degrees Fahrenheit, you can deactivate alliinase and mellow out an overpowering garlic flavor.

Alliinase and alliin are held in isolation in separate cells of the garlic clove and are only brought together when the cell walls are compromised, such as occurs with crushing, chopping, slicing, and biting. Just like a two-part epoxy, two unique compounds are needed to make a reaction. The formation of these thiosulfinates is very rapid and has been found to be complete within 10 to 60 seconds of crushing garlic. Allicin is an unstable compound and researchers have shown the half-life in crushed garlic (at 23°C or 73°F) to be 2.5 days.

Garlic cloves are so powerful that only a few are needed to season an entire dish with zingy garlic flavor. Garlic is usually crushed to varying extents before it is cooked, to allow development of flavor and aroma and sulfur compounds. The garlic flavor is dependent on many factors including the obvious; how much garlic there is, and how it's been prepared. Not all garlic is the same. There are plenty of other forces that impact the potency of garlic. This includes how garlic is crushed; The more cell damage that occurs, the more allicin is produced, and the stinkier the garlic becomes. The variety of the garlic, to the temperature where it's grown (cold apparently makes for stronger garlic flavor), and what kind of fat it's cooked in (butter leads to milder garlic flavors while unsaturated vegetable oils unleash more assertive ones) can change how it smells and tastes. Keep in mind that significant variations exists among garlic cultivars. In the world of hardneck garlic, for example, Georgian Fire, a porcelain hardneck, has much more "garlic heat" as compared to the purple stripe hardneck Chesnok Red. Some cultivars, such as Silverskins, can be stingingly hot. Others, such as some Rocamboles, seem almost sweet in comparison. For more information on the genetic diversity among U.S. Garlic, read the 2004 article by Gayle Volk, Adam Henk and Christopher Richards.

A world without garlic would be a decidedly duller and less tasty place to live. We get our garlic from the GroEat Garlic Farm in Montana. We have a number of tools at our disposal to incorporate garlic into any dish—and not just one flavor of garlic, but a whole range. Here are a few tricks you can perform in the kitchen to mellow out and fine tune garlic's pungent flavor.

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Mellow Garlic's Flavor

1. Slice, Dice, Crush or Microplane?

We can regulate and fine-tune the intensity of garlic flavor by damaging less of the garlic cells. The more cell damage that occurs, the more allicin is produced. If we begin with a single garlic clove, the way it is handled has a huge impact on a dish's flavor. Keeping the garlic clove whole, with no cuts, you will achieve the most mellow garlic flavor. Cutting a garlic clove into a few slices damages just enough cells to bring us to the next level of garlic intensity. Crushing a clove under the blade of a knife damages even more cells, resulting in even more zingy flavor. You can crush garlic by placing a peeled clove under the blade of a chef’s knife, mashing it flat with a whack on the blade with the palm of your hand, and then mincing with the edge of the knife. The more cells we rupture when cutting garlic, the more potent it is. Grinding a crushed clove with a mortar and pestle brings us to the next heat level. Many cells are damaged and lots of allicin is produced using this method. Using a Microplane to mince garlic causes a significant amount of damage to the garlic's cell walls, producing a purée that is very intense. The intensity and heat can be startling and unpleasant. A few words I would use to describe the flavor after microplaning include: Strong, Powerful, Pungent, Caustic and Biting. A microplane is a long, slender grating instrument, with a soft-grip handle. They are available in several grating sizes, from fine to coarse, but I’ve found that the one classic rasp is all you really need. Its beauty lies in its simplicity—simply run a garlic clove over the blades, and fine shreds of grated garlic appear on the other side. Using a blender such as a Vitamix results in the most cell damage. The resultant mash will be caustic, pungent, strong and zingy. Surprisingly, adding an acid such as lemon juice to the Vitamix mixture will mellow the garlic flavor significantly.

2. Using Acid such as Lemon Juice.

Technically speaking, cooking requires heat, so ceviche (also known as seviche or cebiche), a dish in which raw fish is marinated in citrus juice, isn't cooked. But it's not exactly raw, either. Both heat and citric acid are agents of a chemical process called denaturation. The pungency of raw garlic can also be mellowed by soaking garlic in acidic ingredients such as lemon juice. Alliinase's activity is inhibited by highly acidic 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 virtually none of the bitter taste. The combination of garlic and lemon juice may improve cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure. For more information, read this research on Lipid Profile and Some Cardiovascular Risk Factors in a National Institute of Health -- Published Article.

3. Give it Time.

Time itself will reduce the over powering of the garlic flavor. As mentioned earlier, Allicin is an unstable compound and researchers have shown the half-life in crushed garlic (at 23°C or 73°F) to be 2.5 days. Give the chili 24 -48 hours in the refrigerator, and you may find it has mellowed significantly and all the flavors have combined into a great tasting dish.

4. Applying Heat.

Processing of garlic and the conditions used for cooking can markedly influence its heat and pungency. The flavors of raw, uncooked garlic are hotter, more aggressive, more vivid, and more fragrant than garlic that has been chopped and sautéed. The allicin in crushed raw garlic is destroyed by heat. Keep in mind Garlic cloves typically contain less water than onions, so they tend to brown (and burn) more quickly. Add minced garlic along with the seasonings toward the end of a pan-fry dish and cook them just until fragrant, about thirty seconds or so. Cooked garlic loses its bright raw flavor and becomes more mellow and subtle.

To reduce the bite out of garlic, try blanching whole cloves in milk for 5 minutes, or blanching them in water for 5 minutes, and toasting them in their skins in a dry skillet until lightly browned. For simplicity's sake, we prefer heating garlic cloves in the microwave to blanch them. Microwave the cloves in a small bowl for 2 to 3 minutes, or until warm to the touch but not cooked. This short amount of time in the microwave will allow the temperature necessary for alliinase to be deactivated, making it much more convenient for prep work in the kitchen.

Cooking garlic on low heat, slowly for a long time, will generally reduce its flavor to a mellow sweetness. Here too, the long cooking operation deactivates the alliinase.

Cooking garlic quickly can mellow the garlic taste, but just slightly. How we chopped the garlic up will dictate the garlic intensity. For example, if the garlic was sliced into thin cassettes, the intensity will be weak. The intensity of quickly sautéed garlic will be far stronger if we used a Microplane to chop it rather than a knife.

According to Cook's Illustrated, whole and unbroken garlic cloves must be heated to 140°F or above before the enzyme is denatured and therefore inactive. In The America’s Test Kitchen Cookbook put out by Cook’s Illustrated magazine (2001), the editors explore different approaches to the classic dish spaghetti alla carbonara: At first we sautéed a few minced cloves in a little olive oil before adding it to the sauce, but this sautéed garlic lacked the fortitude to counterbalance the heavy weight of the eggs and cheese. Adding raw garlic to the mixture was just the trick. A brief exposure to the heat of the pasta allowed the garlic flavor to bloom and gave the dish a pleasing bite. Here, garlic was successfully incorporated into the dish. Why? Because the crushed raw garlic is warmed by the hot contents of the dish, but not heated to the point of destroying the allicin and other aromatic components. Read more on the effects of cooking, on garlic in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

To draw out different flavors from your garlic, roast an entire clove in the oven. This results in gooey, sweet and surprisingly tender cloves that we can squeeze right out of their skins.

The idea of adding garlic to boiling water is tried and true. This cooking method is excellent in soups and broths given the dish is made with water and garlic. For another take on garlic’s mild side, try making mellow garlic mashed potatoes by boiling the garlic cloves with the potatoes. Then mash them together with butter for subtle, creamy garlic flavor.

Black garlic is a type of aged garlic whose browning is attributable to Maillard reaction rather than caramelization, first used as a food ingredient in Asian cuisine. It is made by heating whole bulbs of garlic over the course of several weeks, a process that results in black cloves.

Emergency! Big Mistake! Too Much Garlic in my Dish.

You added way too much to garlic your dish. What can you do? The easiest solution is to dilute the dish that you are making. You can do this by making another batch and adding it to the batch that has too much garlic. If you cannot make another batch, just add a little of all the ingredients that are not garlic - and taste after each addition until you achieve your desired flavor balance. Here are a few more suggestions:

  • Physically Remove the Garlic from your Dish

  • Raise the Temperature to Burn off the Allicin

  • Add a Lot of Onion

  • Add Aromatic Herbs

  • Add a Creamy Ingredient such as half and half

  • Add an Acidic ingredient such as lemon juice

  • Add a Sweetener such as brown sugar or honey

Comments and Discussions

Let me offer several suggestions for how to "fix" your overpowering garlic dish!

1) Since you have made a batch of chili stew already, the easiest way to reduce the over-powering flavor of garlic is to simply make another batch without ANY garlic, then mix the two together. In effect you are reducing the proportion of garlic in the final product. Yes, you will have a lot more chili stew than you had expected, but you can give some away to your guests or you can freeze the left over chili and pull it out and re-heat it later on to enjoy it.

2) Add a bit of sweetness to your chili by putting in some brown sugar - a little at a time. The sweetness of the sugar and the added cooking can help to reduce the bite of the garlic. Just keep testing so you don't over-sweeten and know that the sweet flavor may become a little more pronounced as it starts to cool - so do not add a lot of sugar.

3) Salt also can help reduce the bite from the garlic, but like both the garlic itself and the brown sugar, salt can quickly overpower a dish. So taste your chili first to see if it could stand a little more saltiness. Don't ruin an already tricky dish by making it so salty no one can eat it - a little may be ok.

4) Add some citric juice to your stew to cut the garlic and to add a little zest. Try lime juice or lemon juice in the chili and you may find it helps (or even orange juice, though it could make your chili a little "soupy"). If you don't have either, you could add small amounts of vinegar (how about some balsamic?) to help cut the garlic flavor.

5) Try adding some various herbs to "absorb" the garlic flavor. It doesn't really absorb it, but it could help cover it by giving your mouth something else to taste. Fresh parsley would be my first choice - and since it doesn't provide a huge change to the chili taste you could add a good amount. For a slightly different & stronger flavor, try cilantro (same family) in the chili. Use the leaves and stems cut into small pieces. Other herbs to consider could be basil, thyme and oregano, but these are stronger so less should be added since you don't want to overpower the garlic chili with any of these.

6) Another suggestion is to keep cooking the chili on low heat. The heat will continue to cook the garlic and may reduce it's impact on the dish (slightly) as it continues to cook. Don't burn your chili though, so keep an eye on it and be sure to mix it often. This won't reduce the garlic flavor a lot but it may reduce the bite you get when you eat it.

#mellowgarlic, #foodchemestry, #roastgarlic, #sauteegarlic, #reducegarlicspice, #garlicandlemon, #spaghetti, #creamygarlicflavor, #cookinggarlic.

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