Ingredient Basics: Garlic

  • The pungency of garlic comes from an enzyme called allicin that is released when the cell walls of the clove are cut. Mash, mince or puree it and you'll be crushing a lot of those walls -- so more pungent flavor. Slice it or chunk it, and you'll minimize the flavor.

  • Cooking breaks down the allicin, so roasting whole cloves gives you great flavor, but little punch. Even pureed garlic mellows after exposure to heat. If you want in-your-face garlic power, add some raw or barely cooked bits just before serving.

  • Peeling is easy: put a clove on the cutting board, crush gently with the side of your knife, then pull off the skin.

  • When buying, choose heads that look clean and dry. Store in a cool, dry place -- preferably not the fridge, but here in Florida the fridge is the best place in the summer. Good heads last 1-3 months.

  • If you notice a green sprout coming from a clove of garlic, don't use it. The sprouting process pulls sugars from the clove, making it bitter and nasty. If you're desperate, cut the sprout out and use the rest of the clove, but it won't be nearly as good.

  • Buy a garlic press to mince garlic. They're cheap, save a hell of a lot of time, and the fine folks at Cook's Illustrated use them, which is all the justification I need.

  • Don't burn the garlic. Minced garlic takes seconds to cook when tossed into a hot pan. Leave it a couple more seconds and the sugars will turn from nutty and caramelized to bitter and burned.

  • If you want to remove garlic smell from hands, you can try: lemon juice, rubbing your hands on stainless steel, or rubbing your hands with salt. Or you can just accept the smell as a glorious perfume and accept whatever comes your way.

The "stinking rose" comes in pill and juice form, is famed for curing a boatload of ills and can turn a fearsome vampire into a whimpering kitten, but that's not why it is an object of obsession the world over. People devote festivals, poems and entire books to garlic because it tastes so freaking good.

Love it or hate it, you still need to know what to do with it, so here's your primer on the year-round bulb that packs more punch than a mountain of spices:

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