Growing this palate-pleaser is good for you, your diet and your cooking.
By Deb Mulvey, Associate Editor
What's the first thing that comes to mind when you think of garlic?
Vampires? The strong aroma that clings to your hands after you peel a few cloves?
If you said "healthy," go to the head of the class.
Garlic has long been prized for its health-boosting benefits. In ancient times, people believed it gave them strength and courage. Greek athletes downed the stuff before Olympic contests to boost their stamina.
Modern nutritionists know garlic packs a wallop— and we're not just talking flavor. Studies show regular garlic consumption can lower blood pressure and cholesterol, prevent artery-clogging plaque, fight infections and even reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Looks like our ancestors were right on target!
Since garlic complements a wide variety of dishes, from meats and soups to breads and salads, it's easy to incorporate this nutritional workhorse into your diet. Raw garlic packs the biggest nutritional punch, but you'll reap benefits from cooked garlic, too.
Let's Get Planting
Growing your own garlic is easy...you probably have the "seeds" in your kitchen right now. All you need is a handful of cloves, although best results usually come from bulbs purchased from garden centers or a catalog.
A member of the onion family, garlic grows best in rich crumbly soil that drains well. Some growers, especially those in the North, plant in early spring, but fall is best, about 6 weeks before the first freeze.
Autumn planting gives the cloves time to develop roots before winter, so shoots develop rapidly in spring. With this jump start, the plants produce more leaves—which means bigger bulbs. And bigger bulbs are what garlic is all about!
To start your own crop, snap the biggest best-looking cloves from the outside of a bulb. The cloves should be smooth and unblemished. To keep them from drying out, wait until just before planting to remove them.
Plant in full sun, cultivate the soil well, mixing compost into the top 6 inches. Place cloves 3 to 5 inches apart and 2 to 3 inches deep, with pointed tips facing upward.
Cover the soil with several inches of mulch. Don't worry, the shoots will find their way through it. And water regularly to promote germination.
You may see a green shoot or two before winter, but that's normal. And yes, your plants will survive the cold. Garlic can withstand even subzero temperatures.
In spring, fertilize as you would normally the rest of your garden. Weed regularly, but be careful. Deep digging can damage the developing bulbs.
Water thoroughly whenever the top few inches of soil are crumbly and moist. Stop when the green tops start to brown. This signals harvesttime is near, and withholding water will help the bulbs' parchment-like covering dry out.
When two-thirds of the green tops have dried out, sometime in July or August, it's time to dig in. Remove the whole plant by gently loosening the soil around the bulb. Never pull it up by the stem.
You can take your harvest straight to the kitchen, but cure any bulbs you plan to store. Dry plants in a single layer in a warm area with good air circulation, or string them together and suspend them. Check them often, discarding any bulbs that mold.
The bulbs should be ready to trim back in 2 to 3 weeks. Snip the tops to 2 inches and cut back the roots. Whole bulbs will keep for months in cool dry storage. Don't refrigerate them—this encourages sprouting, which makes the cloves bitter.
Garlic cloves stand up to just about any preparation method. You can slice, dice, crush, grate or press them. And roasted...unbelievable taste!
But first the sheath-like skin has to go. To peel and keep the clove intact, slice off the stem end and pick off the skin with your fingers. Or invest in an inexpensive garlic peeler, a small rubber tube that gently removes the skin as you roll the clove inside it.
If you're planning to mince or smash the clove anyway, just whack it with the flat side of a broad utensil like a cleaver. The skin will split, making it easy to pluck away. Microwaving the clove for a minute or so makes it easier to peel, but you'll sacrifice some flavor.
With all this garlic on your hands, you may worry that you'll never get the odor off. Here's a quick cleanup tip that works: Soap up your hands and rub them over a stainless steel utensil. Rinse your hands, and the odor is gone!
- The smaller the pieces, the stronger the flavor.
- For just a hint of garlic essence—in a soup or dip, for instance—spear a whole peeled clove and stir the dish with it, then discard the clove.
- Cooking mellows garlic's flavor, but use caution when sauteing. Overcooking makes it bitter.
- Remove the garlic's papery outer skin (do not peel or separate cloves). Cut the top off the bulb and discard.
- Drizzle with olive oil or brush the outside of the bulb with an oil-soaked basting brush. Season with dried herbs—rosemary, basil or thyme—if desired. Arrange bulbs in a small oven-safe dish and cover, or wrap individually in heavy-duty foil.
- Bake at 425° for 30-35 minutes or until softened. Let cool for 10-15 minutes. Transfer softened garlic into a dish by squeezing each clove between your thumb and forefinger to release it from the papery skin. Mash with a fork to use in a variety of recipes.