Essential knife skills for garlic lovers

Essential knife skills for garlic lovers

You’ve probably noticed that some recipes call for sliced garlic, some specify minced and some call for crushed cloves.  And you’ve probably wondered whether it really makes any difference.  It’s the same stuff, right - so what’s the big deal?  Well, turns out that it does make a difference.  In this post we explain why that’s the case, when to use each of the three techniques and how to perform them all with a knife.  Because you need to know!

A culinary chemistry lesson

Garlic contains compounds derived from the sulphur-containing amino acid cysteine.  These are odourless – until their cell tissues are disrupted.  Any disturbance (like cutting or crushing) will bring the amino acid compound into contact with an enzyme which converts it into molecules of ammonia, pyruvic acid and a mildly garlicky but unstable compound. This in turn breaks down into diallyl sulfide, the main thing that gives garlic its characteristic odour and flavour.   

So, in layperson’s terms garlic won't smell or taste like garlic until you interfere with the cells.  That’s why you can put a whole head into a casserole and stew it without the aroma and taste becoming overpowering.  Slice it and you’ll get a mild smell and flavour.  Mince it and you’ll increase the intensity.  Crush it and the pungency gets really potent – perhaps overpowering.  So, if you want to protect yourself from vampires an intact bulb or clove won’t work nearly as well as pulverizing the stuff!

Raw results

Daniel Gritzer, Culinary Director of Serious Eats, bravely tasted raw garlic prepared in different ways to see how this worked in practice

When he hand-minced garlic into tiny squares he found it comparatively mild with “a nice garlicky flavor that, even after chewing, remained on the mellow side. A subtle burn eventually kicked in, but it was slow and never really hit unpleasant levels.” 

Then he tried a garlic press.  This was messy and “the flavor was more aggressive than the hand-minced cloves, and started to burn my tongue after about five seconds.” 

Next he pureed it with a knife blade (we’ll explain how to do this in a moment) and found the flavor “was tolerable, but it had a burn that kicked in fast and then started to feel painful. This is intense stuff.” 

Finally, he used a microplane.  His tasting notes are dramatic: “THIS HURTS OH MY GOD SAVE ME MY TONGUE WAAAAAHHHHHH!”  He concludes that “I can't say with any certainty why the microplane produces raw garlic that is so dramatically different from the others, but it really does seem to.”

Recipe for success

When you cook garlic this changes the flavour.  Daniel braised some beef shanks with plenty of onion, carrot, garlic, and red wine.  He made two batches simultaneously, the only difference being that one contained garlic minced with a knife while the other used microplaned garlic.  Initially the one with minced garlic had a sweeter and more mellow aroma while the second pot had a strong acrid smell.  However, three hours later, “I found that they tasted exactly the same; if there was a difference, I wasn't detecting it.” 

What if you are creating a stir-fry dish?  It’s generally recommended that you slice or dice your garlic because the cooking time is short and you don’t want your garlic so pungent that it overpowers all the other flavours.  What’s more, the intense heat will almost surely burn the pureed garlic and this creates a very unpleasant bitter taste.

How about preparing a tomato sauce?   Felicity Cloake, writing in The Guardian, felt that very thinly sliced cloves created “too faint a hint of garlic for my taste, although the delicate slices do look quite decorative.”   Pressed garlic, on the other hand, produced a sauce that had “a strong, almost overwhelming garlickyness to it.”  Her favourite was the one with the finely chopped garlic, being “more subtly flavoured” and “slightly sweeter”.

Salad dressings such as vinaigrette or mayonnaise present another challenge.  Crushed garlic, as you’d expect, produces a stronger flavour than the minced variety and some people may find the taste too intense.  With chopped garlic some may feel the results disappointingly mild while others don’t like the jarring and bitter sensation of chewing small raw morsels of the stuff. Ultimately, it all comes down to personal preference – one person’s “overpowering” or “aggressive” is another’s “perfect” or “powerful”.

Then there’s roasting, either meat or vegetables, or both together.  A few whole cloves of garlic added at the start (skin on or off) will taste amazing.

Knife vs press or microplane

Using a press or microplane may prove slightly quicker but it’s messy and wasteful.  Also, as we’ve seen, the results are not suitable for stir-frying (the watery mush is sure to burn and become bitter).  And when used uncooked the flavour might be way too much for those with a sensitive palate. 

A knife, however, is perfect – you can slice, mince or crush (without the waste, no wateriness and avoiding the taste becoming too harsh).

How to use your knife

First of all choose the correct knife - one with a curved blade that allows you to use a rocking motion when cutting.  Our Orient Chef’s Knives and Orient Santoku Knives are ideal. 

Next, peel your clove.  Place it on a chopping board, lay the flat side of the blade on top and then bash down with your other hand to slightly crush it.  This makes the skin easy to remove.  Then, curl your fingers into a claw shape and hold the clove down.  Then place the point of the knife onto the board and use a rocking motion to run the side of the blade up and down your knuckle to produce a series of fine slices.   Voila – sliced garlic!

To create minced garlic use the blade to pile up the slices then cut across the slices using the same rocking motion but with the palm of your free hand resting on the spine of the blade.  Pile up the pieces again and repeat until everything is finely diced. 

For crushed garlic you simply pile up the minced bits once again then place the knife blade flat across the top of them with the point resting on the board.  Place the palm of your free hand flat onto the pointed end of the blade so it makes good contact with the board.  Now use your other hand to grind the side of the blade down with a slightly diagonal motion onto the small pieces of garlic to crush them into a paste.  Pile up again and repeat several times until you have the required consistency.  One very useful tip is to sprinkle some salt on the garlic pieces before you start your crushing – the granules help break everything up with less effort.

You are good to go

Hopefully this article will help you understand why some recipes call for sliced garlic while others specify the minced garlic or crushed variety.  Alternatively, if the recipe doesn’t specify the type of garlic prep required, or you want to vary it in line with your own taste preferences, you’ll be able to make more informed judgements about the best way to go.  Enjoy!

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