Does it matter how you cut garlic?

Yes, it does.

Garlic contains volatile oils that are released when it's crushed or pressed. As garlic's cell walls are smashed, its oils react with its natural enzymes, and the aroma and flavour become very strong. If used immediately in raw preparations, the pungent pulp and extracted juices from pressed or pureed garlic give your dish a pronounced spicy flavour. Unfortunately, these oils don't last but turn rancid quickly and linger on hands, breath, and cutting surfaces. Pressed garlic doesn't hold up well when heated, either. It turns bitter and quickly loses its characteristic garlic flavour. I would advise against using a garlic press for these reasons. Plus, they are difficult to clean.

When you mince or chop garlic, the oils aren't violently forced out but are left to slowly season your food as its cooks. Also, the enzymes that make garlic pungent are destroyed by heat, so the garlic flavor is more apt to mellow as it cooks.

In general, the longer the cooking time, the larger you can leave the pieces of garlic. Finely minced garlic may also be used in vinaigrettes and salsas where the high acidity of the food will help break down the garlic and bring out its flavours.

The more aggressively garlic is handled, the more aggressive and short-lived its flavour.

Just to add a bit of clarification on the process... The pungent nature of garlic is carried by the oils within it, which happen to have a rather low vapor pressure, but fairly high dissolution and absorption rates, hence why they can be easily emitted from the garlic (which obviously has high concentrations) and doesn't really come out of anything else. Now, the removal of the pungence is a reaction based on heat when the oils interact with some of the other binding carbohydrates and/or cell membranes (I don't remember which it was) of the garlic and it forms sugars. This is why a) garlic that has been cooked in larger pieces instead of smaller ones comes out sweeter, and b) why it comes out softer. For the same reasons, when breaking the garlic, and releasing the oils before the cooking process, it will be soaked into the rest of the food, or even the pan, which more than likely does not have the proper structure to form those sugars.

Also of note, adding extra oil (i.e. olive oil) to the garlic, when cooking, will break down even more membranes and bindings, so it becomes extra sweet and soft. Coming soon: Roasted Garlic for 2
Sensei once asked the question "Does it matter how you cut garlic?" In brief, the answer is, "Yes, it does!" Chop or mince it too fine and you do lose some pungency and flavour through the loss of volatile oils during cooking, but I have found that adding salt does help to create more flavour in the recipe.

As I understand it, the main reason for adding salt to the garlic when dicing or pressing it, it to absorb the precious oils. This means that more of the oil ends up in the pot, and not on the chopping board, and not on your fingers.

Once you have peeled the garlic (in itself quite an art, see Footprints' writeup below), you will be ready to start the preparation. My best experiences have been when I have roughly chopped the cloves, then gently pressed them with a broad-bladed knife (I use Sabatier). Sprinkled with just enough salt to absorb the juices, the pulp is then gently mixed on the board then transferred to the pot. The juices mingle straight away, and the larger chunks marinate in the mix, slowly softening and releasing their goodness.

I have also tried adding a little more, finely-chopped, toward the end of the cooking process. The freshness of the new garlic has to be tasted to be believed. This way, I get the best of all worlds when cooking. Word of warning though - when adding garlic to salads, you may need to do a final chop before adding it, as many people find larger pieces of garlic too challenging!

How to peel garlic

Ah. I can fondly remember the time when I hadn't the foggiest idea how to peel garlic. I would labour for ages upon one clove, frustrated and smelly (me, not the clove. Well, maybe also the clove). And then, lo and behold, by a curious stroke of luck, I learned 3 methods of doing so with little hassle. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method, of course, and each chef and kitchen-user has his or her own favorite. I will present the 4 methods I know, with their advantages and disadvantages, plus, of course, a grading scale.
The criteria
I used the following criteria when appraising each method:
  1. Speed - it is important to be able to peel large amounts of garlic quickly, when cooking for 60 guests. Also, if you just want one clove of garlic, you'd like to have it quickly, and not slave for 10 minutes trying to battle with the peel. 10 on the scale is 1 second, 1 is several minutes.
  2. Ease - related to speed, but not entirely the same. It shouldn't be a hassle to peel garlic.
  3. Intactness - you may want to read the above writeups for a discussion on what crushing garlic does to it. You may want to crush your garlic or you may want not to crush your garlic. The point is, after you have peeled the garlic, you should be able have the choice whether you want it crushed or not. You may want whole cloves for decoration, or want to slice up thin slices, in which case having a pulp of a garlic after you've peeled it is no good.
  4. Smell - yes, there are ways to get rid of the smell of garlic. I have yet to find one that works no matter how much you've got on your hands. After I peel garlic, I'd rather not smell of it for 2 days.
  5. Overall: 25% speed, 20% ease, 40% intactness, 15% smell

The original method

Take a clove of garlic, and start peeling it with your hands. Become very frustrated. Peel layer after layer after layer. Work really hard to get that last layer off. Watch your fingers slip off the garlic peel, and listen to yourself curse with vigor and gusto.

Advantages
The only method where the garlic comes out complete and intact.

Disadvantages
Very smelly fingers. Slow. Bad-temper inducing.

Grading

  1. Speed : 1
  2. Ease: 1
  3. Intactness: 10
  4. Smell: 1
  5. Overall: 4

Crushing

Take a clove of garlic, and put it on a surface that won't be broken by being smashed with a large blunt object (for example a cutting board). Take a large blunt object, with a largeish surface area (such as the bottom of a pan), and smash the garlic forecefully. The garlic will now be a bit of a pulp, and the peel is easy to take off. If it's not, smash it again, more forcefully. You can do multiple garlics this way. Also, the pansy method is taking a large butcher knife and crushing it under that (under the flat of the knife), using your hand for pressure.

Advantages
Quick and enjoyable. Very little smell stays on the fingers, due to minimal contact with the garlic. It is definitely the most fun way of peeling garlic. (Not in the grading system, admittedly, but should definitely be noted). It is a good method to impress people with, as violent means to non-violent ends are often amusing.

Disadvantages
You get a pulp of a clove, so this is good only if you want crushed garlic, or have some other amorphous use for garlic.

Grading

  1. Speed : 9
  2. Ease: 8
  3. Intactness: 2 (you can hit it softly)
  4. Smell: 8
  5. Overall: 5

Knife handling

Take a clove of garlic, and cut off both ends. Hold the knife to the length of the clove, and push it in so that it is all the way through the peel. Then push the knife out, towards you, so that it grabs the peel from the inside, put your finger on it, so that the peel is between the knife's edge and your finger. Take off all the peel in one motion. You may have to push the knife a bit into the body of the garlic, but the peel should all come off in one go. This is a bit difficult on bulgy garlics, as the peel seems to be a bit stuck on some, but generally it works all right. This is also a good way to peel onions.

Advantages
I've seen several chefs teach this, so it must be good.

Disadvantages
More garlic handling than 'crushing' and 'the plastic tube', especially if you don't get it right the first time. It's a bit harder to master than the others.

Grading

  1. Speed : 6
  2. Ease: 5
  3. Intactness: 9 (you cut the ends off)
  4. Smell: 6
  5. Overall: 7

The plastic tube

The only method where you actually have to buy an accessory, but it's not a very expensive one. There is a little tube made of soft plastic, a bit thicker than a plump cigar. You stick the cloves in there and roll it back and forth or the counter, or table or whatnot, putting light pressure on the cloves, and lo and behold - out come the cloves, all peeled.

Advantages
Your hands never come into contact with the garlic, so there is no smell. It is very simple to use, and basically does a great job.

Disadvantages
You have to buy a tube, and you may end up squishing the garlic slightly.

Grading

  1. Speed : 8
  2. Ease: 10
  3. Intactness: 8
  4. Smell: 10
  5. Overall: 9


Other noders' methods

Here are some other noders' takes on how you can peel garlic:

ariels's method
"Related to The Tube: crush it between your fingers. Unless you have Fingers of Steel (tm), you get relatively unscathed garlic."

Lometa's method
"There is also a way to put a clove in the microwave for a few seconds and the skin will slip right off hmmm I put it in a recipe around here but can't recall which one or how long and all that." Then after a little search, Lometa added: "Here it is: Garlic bread and there is another helpful hint about garlic in Angel Hair Pasta with Chicken too."

czeano's method
"I just start slicing the garlic most of the way through; the peel comes off like the shell of a shrimp, (usually) all in one piece."

sneff's "we gotta peel a shitload of garlic" catering method
"Place entire bulbs - up to 2 or 3, into a tea towel wrap up firmly, and bang away with a rolling pin. The amount of force you use determines the final outcome. Hit hard and the skins slip away with no effort (yet the cloves are crushed) - hit softer for a more intact clove - with a bit more peeling effort."

drinkypoo's method
I cut the end off the bulb to skin it, then crush the cloves SLIGHTLY (perhaps I should say 'crack'?) with the side of a chef's knife. The skins come off easily after that and the garlic is not very crushed.


Regarding the smell - Teiresias says "Have you tried washing your hands with a little milk?". Also, there is an interesting idea involving stainless steel in the above writeups.

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