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A firm favourite of anybody wanting to ward off vampires in the night, garlic is one of the most well-beloved herbs used in contemporary cooking. Used by cultures all over the world both to add a little zing to their cuisine and for its well documented medicinal qualities, it has one of the surest legacies of any foodstuff. But is it all it’s cracked up to be? Let’s take a look.

What is garlic?

a big pile of garlic bulbs

Garlic (Allium sativum) belongs as a species Allium, an onion genus, whose close relatives are to be found in chives, leeks, onions and shallots. It is a bulbous plant which can grow up to four feet in height, producing hermaphroditic flowers. However, it is the bulb itself that is usually to be found in the kitchen.

Origins

Native to Central Asia and ancient Persia, it has a history spanning several thousand years of human consumption both as a seasoning and a key ingredient in many traditional medicine systems. Today, varieties such as ‘crow garlic’, ‘field garlic’ and ‘wild garlic’ can be found growing all over the world.

Etymology

The word ‘garlic’ has its roots in the Middle English garlek, which means spear (gar) and leek, as in spear shaped leek.

Main producing countries

China is the world’s largest producer of garlic, with single bulb garlic itself originating in Yunnan Province. China produces an annual twenty million tons of garlic, far outstripping the second largest producer, India, at one and a quarter million tons. Korea, Egypt and Russia are all large producers, whilst several European countries such as Italy, France and Britain grow strains of garlic which enjoy Protected Geographical Status.

Different types of garlic

different types of garlic

Garlic types can largely be divided into two parts: softneck and hardneck. Of the hardneck variety, the most abundant are silver skin and artichoke garlic, whilst hardneck boasts rocambole, porcelain, and purple stripe garlics. Though there are many more varieties out there, these are the ones you can expect to come across.

Softneck garlics are those with which you’ll be the most familiar, as they are the ones your local shop will most likely stock. Their name comes from their covering, which is a multi-layered, parchment-like, creamy white casing that comes together to form a pliable neck. They generally have several layers of cloves inside- perfect for crushing into pasta sauces or sautéing!

On the other hand, hardneck garlics have – as you might have guessed – hard, inflexible central stalks. If you buy hardneck garlic, you will generally find these stalks extending a good inch or two from the bulb’s top. Hardneck garlics will contain many small bulbs, genetically identical to the parent bulb, which will give you a fiddly yet delicious ingredient to your cooking.

Fresh, as a bulb, garlic cloves retain their strongest flavour. However, garlic can also be bought as a dried and ground spice, minced or pasted or ready diced in brine or vinegar, or pickled and ready to eat… there is no shortage of ways for you to buy your weekly dose of the good stuff.

How is garlic grown?

how to grow garlic and harvest bulbs

As we will see below in my planting guide, garlic grows all year round and is relatively easy to manage. Although garlic can be reproduced sexually, most propagation is asexual, with individual cloves being planted. Hardneck garlic favors cooler environments, whilst softneck generally prefers more equatorial climates.

7 garlic facts you might not know

Bone up on your garlic facts right here!

The average person eats over three hundred cloves of garlic per year- that’s nearly one per day. When you’ve read my section below on the health benefits of garlic below, you’ll hopefully agree that that’s no bad thing!

 

One of the many health benefits that I will talk about below is garlic’s almost supernatural ability to reduce cholesterol…

 

…and heart disease. Allicin, found in garlic, helps bring about an increase of nitric oxide in the blood vessels, relaxing them and reducing blood pressure. No wonder people are so laid back around the Mediterranean!

 

It’s no surprise therefore that garlic’s use in medicine goes back to ancient times. Garlic’s health benefits were well documents by the Ancient Egyptians, and Virgil, Pliny the Elder, and Galen all make note of it in their works.

 

You don’t have to limit yourself to eating just the standard clove. Hardneck varieties of garlic produce ‘scopes’ – green shoots that can be wonderfully tender and packed full of flavour. Just trim them off with a small knife and save them – they make perfect additions to pesto sauces and soups.

 

Garlic is widely used to repel mosquitoes, and it’s widely agreed that this formed the basis for one of garlic’s most enduring myths – its ability to ward off vampires! Bram Stoker was well aware of the uses to which garlic could be put – if it can ward off mozzies, why not Dracula himself?

 

You can use garlic to make glue. The cloves’ sticky juice can be used to create a vegan friendly adhesive, with no need for boiling down any animal parts. What truly wonderful stuff!

Garlic’s nutritional profile

fresh garlic bulbs on a wooden table

So, now we know what garlic is and what we’re looking for. But why do so many health food types tout it as such a magic ingredient? Can it really be so great?

As we already know by now, the main portion of the garlic plant we usually use is the bulb, winkling out those individual cloves from their little parchment skins. And no wonder: aside from being tasty, those cloves are an excellent source of pyridoxine (otherwise known as vitamin B6.) They are also good sources of Vitamin C, selenium, and manganese, alongside minerals such as iron, copper, potassium, and phosphorus.

A 100g serving provides a little over six grams of protein, half a gram of fat, and thirty-three grams of carbohydrates, of which two grams are fibre: all this for a paltry one hundred and fifty calories.

Garlic bulbs also contain the active ingredient allicin, a compound containing sulphur which gives garlic its distinctive pong and sharp taste.

Health benefits of garlic

health benefits of garlic - purple pink cloves from a fresh bulb

Looking at the nutritional information, it’s easy to see why we are told to include garlic in our diets. However, not only does it boast an impressive macro- and micro-nutrient profile, there are also some incredible health benefits to be had from garlic.

What are these garlic health benefits and how do we get them?

Hippocrates – Ancient Greek physician, philosopher and arguably the father of Western medicine – swore by garlic. He used to prescribe it to his patients to treat a plethora of illnesses and modern medical science is beginning to bear him out. Read on for a list of the main health benefits to be garnered from garlic.

Sulphur

Scientists now know that most of the health benefits that the ancient civilisations who used garlic were looking for come from the sulphur compounds formed when the bulb’s cloves are crushed or chopped. I’ve already mentioned allicin above, though other compounds come in to play.

 

Sulphur compounds such as diallyl disulphide and s-allyl cysteine enter the system through the digestive tract, from where they travel all over the body exerting powerful biological effects, protecting against conditions such as allergies, inflammation, osteoarthritis, and muscle soreness.

 

At high doses, these sulphur compounds have been shown to protect against heavy metal toxicity and related organ damage. It reduces many clinical signs of toxicity such as headaches and high blood pressure. Ingestion of three doses of garlic each day has been shown to work better than the drug D-penicillamine (one of the main treatments for heavy metal toxicity.)

 

Powerful stuff.

 

Immune system boost

Regular garlic ingestion can also fight off many minor illnesses, including the common cold. Garlic supplements are often used to achieve this, bolstering your immune system against nasty bugs.

 

A recent study found that daily garlic supplementation reduced the number of common colds by up to 63% when compared with a placebo. In addition, the average length of cold-like symptoms was reduced, down from five days for those taking the placebo to just a day and a half for those on the garlic.

 

Another study found that high daily doses of garlic extract – 2.56g per day – reduced the number of sick days participants took off work with cold or flu by a whopping 61%.

 

Though the evidence is thin in such studies for the moment, research remains ongoing. In the meantime, it may well be worth taking garlic supplements of 2-5g daily if you tend to suffer with colds.

 

Reduce blood pressure and the risk of heart disease

Today’s frantic world is not short of people suffering with high blood pressure. Cardiovascular diseases are amongst the world’s biggest killers, with 31% of the world’s death rate being attributed to it in 2016, according to the World Health Organisation. High blood pressure – or hypertension – is one of the most important factors in such cases.

 

Studies have shown that garlic supplements aid in reducing blood pressure for those suffering from hypertension. Supplementation doses need to be on the high side for this to happen, with a recommended amount comparable to about four cloves of garlic daily.

 

As well as bringing down high blood pressure, garlic can lower both total and LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is another driving factor in heart disease, so reducing it (by up to 15% in some cases) will greatly drop your risk.

 

Slow cognitive decline

The ageing process, which we have all unfortunately yet to remedy, is contributed to by oxidative damage from free radicals. Garlic contains antioxidants and, in high enough doses, these help the body to protect itself against oxidative damage.

 

The combination of the reduction in cholesterol and blood pressure with these antioxidant properties may reduce the risk of common brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The downsides

Garlic is safe for most people to take orally, either in its raw form or as a supplement. It has been used without harm in research for up to seven years. However, when taken orally, garlic can cause bad breath, heartburn, gas, nausea, body odour, and/or an upset stomach, alongside possible burning sensations in the mouth when taken in its raw form.

Garlic products are also likely to be safe when applied to the skin. However, there is a possibility of gels, pastes, and mouthwashes containing garlic causing skin damage similar to that of a light burn. These effects are likely to be more severe in the case of raw garlic.

Medical professionals advise that garlic is safe to use during pregnancy and breast feeding, though not in medicinal amounts. However, there is not enough reliable information on the subject as yet.

Combinations to avoid

The absorption and breakdown of certain drugs can be adversely affected by medicinal garlic use. These include:

  • Isonazid (Nyrdazid, INH.)
  • Medications used in the treatment for HIV/AIDs (NNRTIs)
  • Saquinavir (Fortovase, Invirase)

And, to a lesser degree:

  • Certain birth control pills containing oestrogen
  • Cyclosporine (Neoral, Sandimmune)
  • Medications changed by the liver, including acetaminophen, chlorzoxazone, ethanol, theophylline, alongside drugs commonly used in anaesthesia
  • Anticoagulants such as aspirin, clopidogrel, diclofenac, ibuprofen, naproxen, and warfarin

My advice would always be to consult a healthcare professional before using a new supplement.

How to buy garlic

how to buy garlic - bulbs and cloves on a wooden table

Any well-stocked pantry needs a good few heads of garlic stored away in it. It is a staple of most cuisines: what recipes do you make that don’t begin with crushing, mincing or dicing a couple of cloves? Garlic is a must in modern cuisine, surely?

And when it comes to buying garlic, the best is fresh. Though it is available seemingly all year round, garlic does actually have a season. From midsummer through to the beginning of autumn, it is to be found at its freshest: the garlic you see in the shops at other times of year is most likely out of storage and so will not be at its best.

However, garlic is in demand all year round, and if you want it regularly you’ll have to buy these stored heads most of the time, so try your hardest when shopping to find the freshest possible.

How? Simply pick up the bulb and lightly squeeze it in your palm to make sure that none of the outer cloves are either too dry or too soft. It should feel firm to the touch. Also, keep an eye out for little sprouts growing from the cloves, as these are another sure sign that the garlic is on its way out.

How to keep it fresh

Keep it cool and dry, so avoid places where there is excessive moisture and don’t put it in the fridge. Moisture can cause the cloves to rot, so it’s best to keep it on your counter with other dry produce like onions.

Ideally, use the bulb within seven days of buying it, though it will last a lot longer if the outer, papery skin is unbroken.

Other ways to buy

Dried, powdered, minced… all of these will bring flavour to your dishes, and are arguably much simpler and easier to use. However, they will have lost a lot of their potency, both on the palate and, crucially, medicinally.

All of the health benefits of garlic I mentioned above rely on you taking in the full micronutrient profile of the clove which, sadly, will be lost in processed goods. So, by all means use a little pre-prepared stuff, and keeping some tucked away is always handy, but for the most part go fresh.

Should you buy organic?

how to prepare garlic chopped in half ready for roasting

Simply, usually yes with any foodstuffs. The fewer pesticides and chemicals released into our natural environments, the better, right?

Garlic itself is a natural pesticide (we’ve already mentioned mozzies and vampires – it keeps them all at bay!) But that’s not to say that dodgy chemicals aren’t used in the growing of garlic.

It doesn’t rank among the worst offenders by any stretch of the imagination, but it is often treated with chemicals to stop sprouting and to preserve freshness. Buying organic is always wise, so look out for organic garlic where you can. Most whole food retailers will stock it, so you shouldn’t have any problems finding some on your next shopping trip.

Ways to consume garlic

There are a couple of ways to get more garlic in your life. Let’s start with the no-brainer!

Incorporate it into your diet

The obvious one, really. It’s food, so eat it! However, there are several tasty and nutritious ways to do so:

Eat it raw

Include a half to a full clove of garlic in your diet every day. Most of us have experienced garlic cooked in a variety of ways, but it is just as good raw. Crush it, chop it, mince it… all will release the healthy compounds that we’re looking for when searching out garlic’s many benefits.

 

Eating your garlic raw can also have health benefits that you will miss out on by cooking it. Raw garlic relaxes the smooth muscles in your blood vessels, for example, dilating them and helping to lower blood your pressure.

 

Some of my favourite ways to enjoy raw garlic include:

 

  • Chopping it in with some fresh or sun-dried tomatoes and basil. Eat it as a salad in its own right, mix it with some cold, leftover pasta or use it to top some crunchy bruschetta
  • Pound it into your favourite pesto recipe
  • Mash it finely and spread it on toast with a dash of lemon juice and a sprinkle of salt and pepper

 

Cook it

Although raw garlic contains optimal health benefits, cooked garlic is still pretty potent. Use up to two cloves per person for a real kick and, as with raw garlic, make sure to crush, chop or mince it to release those healthy compounds.

 

Consider boosting your efforts with a little added dried garlic powder to really deepen the flavour. Remember, for all that dried garlic has fewer nutritional benefits to fresh, as a supplementation to the main dish – just increasing raw volume of garlic intake – it really will do well.

 

Top tip: Allow garlic to sit for fifteen minutes after crushing, chopping, or mincing to get its maximum benefit.

 

Some great ways to cook garlic into your everyday diet include:

 

  • Roasting garlic and mixing it into your favourite vegetable dish
  • Slowly simmering into soup
  • Marinating tofu or seitan in a garlic rub and then pan frying
  • Mashing well cooked cloves in with your potatoes

 

Brew a nice cup of garlic tea

No, really. Steep a clove of chopped or minced garlic in hot water for five minutes. Try adding ginger, cinnamon or syrup for extra flavour. It’s far more refreshing than you might think and tastes fantastic.

 

Garlic oil

Try replacing your usual marinade or cooking oil with garlic infused oil. It infuses any dish with its lovely, sharp flavour and will carry some of its health benefits along with it. Far better than a mundane drizzle! For an even greater kick, try adding in some chilli and lime – you’ll really take your cooking up a notch.

Supplements

Garlic supplements typically come as capsules of dried garlic and can be found in your local health food shop or online. Whilst it’s best for your health to take in as much fresh garlic as you can, as this will always contain the most potent active ingredients, supplementation can be a useful and convenient boost.

There are a few things to remember when buying garlic supplements, however:

 

  1. Read the label and make sure that the capsules you’re looking at contain allium, an active ingredient which is key to garlic’s health-giving properties. Follow the label’s dosing instructions to make sure you’re getting enough.
  2. Try to avoid tablets, plumping for capsules instead. The process involved in making tablets destroys much of what is good and nutritious in the garlic compound.
  3. Remember, as with any other capsule, make sure they are vegan. More and more often they will be as the world catches on to the plant-based lifestyle, but you will still find animal gelatin coatings on the market.
  4. Always speak to a healthcare professional before taking a new supplement if you are concerned about any side effects.

How to prepare and cook garlic

Now for the good part – learning how to maximise your garlic intake through healthy and delicious, contemporary, vegan cuisine. Before I get to some of my favourite recipes, it’s worth looking at how to make the most out of the garlic itself – how to get different and desired flavours from your bulbs.

As this video shows, there are many ways to deal with garlic prep. At its most basic, pick a clove from the central bulb, peel it and use a knife to crush or slice it – always carefully, of course.

It’s always worth remembering that the finer you chop your garlic, the hotter, more intense and more pungent it will become. Grated or crushed garlic will produce finer particles than chopping by hand, further intensifying the flavours. One good way to crush chopped garlic is with a dash of sea salt and a pestle and mortar- this produces the strongest flavour of all.

However, sometimes strength isn’t what’s required. To get a sweeter more aromatic taste, ditching the pungency of crushed garlic, there are a couple of methods you can use. For these, heat is the key. Garlic contains enzymes which trigger the hot garlic flavour with which I’m sure you’re familiar. These enzymes are deactivated when cooked.

To get this effect quickly, simply microwave a couple of cloves on a medium setting for thirty seconds. This will give you the aromatic, subtler flavours without the intensity.

Another way to cook garlic for a subtler flavour is through caramelisation. Set your oven to 350 degrees, lightly drizzle an entire head of garlic with olive oil, wrap it in foil and roast for about forty-five minutes. You will get a super-sweet result with tender, mild cloves.

And, of course, there is always another option: combine both heated and raw garlic for a wonderful complexity of tangy, aromatic flavours. Slow cook some cloves whole and then sauté some sliced garlic in a dash of olive oil. Grate some raw garlic at the end, mix it all together and enjoy.

Recipes

With all this garlicky information swirling around in your head, it’s likely that you’ll want to get cooking up a few cloves yourself. With this in mind, I’ve added a few garlic recipes to get you started:

Garlic and coconut seitan curry

pumpkin coconut garlic curry

A fantastic dish filled with plant friendly protein, this Malaysian style curry will keep you warm for days. Creamy and rich, yet layered with a strong, hot depth, it is a bowl full of comfort just waiting for you to try it.

This curry uses seitan at its heart, a high protein veggie option made from wheat germ whose popularity has been growing in recent years. Seitan is quite meaty and can be both satisfying to existing vegans and comforting for those trying either to trim down their meat intake or, of course, go the full hurdle and commit to the plant-based life.

Broccoli in garlic sauce

broccoli with garlic sauce

A healthy, veg packed Chinese-style dish, this recipe really makes the most out of the sweeter notes to be found in garlic. It is versatile, easy and quick to make. If you wanted to, you could easily swap out the soy sauce for an alternative like tamari- this is not only vegan but gluten-free into the bargain.

Garlic and lemon roast asparagus

garlic asparagus recipe

This recipe is fun, light and flavoursome, combining healthy greens with zesty lemon and garlic. Not much more to say than that- give it a go.

Asian garlic tofu

garlic tofu, asian style

What a fantastic way to eat tofu, that staple of delicious, high protein vegan fare. This recipe gives a rarely found crispy edge to your tofu- as long as you drain it correctly – and packs a punch with sweet, salty and spicy flavours wrapped up beneath that pongy, garlic goodness. A definite favourite.

How to get rid of garlic breath

No less real for being a cliché, garlic breath hits hard when you’re eating recipes packed with this wonderful ingredient and, if you’re a lover of the stuff, you will have likely asked yourself this question at one time or another. Luckily, however, there are some surprisingly simple ways to get around it.

You’re welcome!

Raw produce and traditional remedies work best for eliminating garlic odours. Specifically, chewing raw apples, mint, lettuce, or parsley is your best bet. All of them contain chemicals which work to destroy the compounds within garlic that cause smelly breath after eating, according to a new study headed up by Ohio State University.

The researchers knew from previous work that some foods worked better than others at counteracting garlic breath. The theory they worked with identified two separate factors at play: phenolic compounds (antioxidants found in common produce) and enzymes (proteins that help to speed up chemical reactions.)

Eating garlic releases the allicin mentioned above, which in turn breaks down into a series of quite volatile chemicals. These get into the stomach and bloodstream and, eventually, they are released out of the body through the mouth.

When you eat foods rich in phenolic compounds, such as apples and mint, the phenols react with those chemicals, breaking them down. The enzymes speed up the reaction, so if your raw fruit or veg contains these enzymes, this reaction happens much faster and the smell disappears more quickly.

Never has the after-dinner palate cleanser been so praised. So, enjoy some fresh fruit or veggies between desert and coffee and those around you won’t have to suffer your noxious (though admittedly healthy) presence.

Garlic breath isn’t the only olfactory nuisance related to cooking with garlic. Garlic fingers are a thing, too. If you wash your hands in warm or hot water after handling garlic, the smell will be baked on for hours or even days. Try using colder water with simple soap and you’ll be odour free in no time.

Growing your own garlic

garlic growing your own

For fresh, cheap garlic, growing at home is a definite option. Garlic is pretty easy to grow if you get a couple of important factors right. You’ll need decent enough soil, adequate moisture levels, and good timing.

The best time for planting garlic is around a month to six weeks before the ground is expected to freeze in your area, though there is a little flexibility on this timing. Planting as early as September and as late as Thanksgiving can often yield good enough results. The roots will begin to grow fairly quickly – the aim is to get these well developed before the plants fall dormant for the year.

You will need loose, fertile soil. To loosen it, break it apart with a fork, spread a good three-inch layer of compost over the area – chicken or rabbit manure works, but leaf mold will do nicely for those of us wanting to avoid animal products – and dig it in.

Next, prepare shallow furrows in the soil, about six inches apart. Place your garlic cloves about four to five inches apart along each furrow, holding each clove pointed end up, and push into the soil to a depth of about two inches. When they’re all in, use your fingers or a rake to smooth the soil surface and fill in the holes. Water well, label where you have planted them (especially if planting more than one variety of garlic) and… wait.

Come spring, when the weather brightens up, you’ll see the top growth. Water it modestly, fertilize it when the garlic is growing well (about mid-April in the northern states), and again about a month later. By June, the garlic should have started to form cloves and will be ready to eat. Harvest them gently, using a gardening fork to pry apart the soil, when the plants each have around half a dozen leaves.

For a comprehensive look at growing your own garlic, check out this video from Charles Dowding:

Garlic 101…done!

That’s pretty much it for garlic. Hopefully we’ve gone over everything you need to know about the tangy little bulb. There are so many ways to get the most out of garlic, and it is so ubiquitous in global cuisine, that there are always new things to be done with it. Why not have an explore and find a new favourite, or try something from our list and let us know how it goes? Don’t forget to share in the comments below.

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