Food For Thought: Garlic!

Garlic pictures

Allium sativum, commonly known as garlic, is a species in the onion genus, Allium. Garlic is a strong-smelling pungent-tasting bulb, used as a flavoring in cooking and in herbal medicine. It is close relatives with the onion, shallot, leek and chive. With a history of human use of over 7,000 years, garlic is native to central Asia, and has long been a staple in the Mediterranean region, as well as a frequent seasoning in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Garlic is grown globally, but China is by far the largest producer of garlic, with approximately 10.5 million tonnes (23 billion pounds) grown annually, accounting for over 77% of world output. India (4.1%) and South Korea (2%) follow, with Egypt and Russia (1.6%) tied in fourth place and the United States (where garlic is grown in every state except for Alaska) in sixth place (1.4%). This leaves 16% of global garlic production in countries that each produce less than 2% of global output. Much of the garlic production in the United States is centered in Gilroy, California, which calls itself the “garlic capital of the world”.




There are three types of varieties of garlic: Softneck, Stiffneck, and Great-headed (Elephant). Most types are about 90 days to harvest.

  • Softneck varieties, like their name suggests, have necks that stay soft after harvest, and therefore are the types that you see braided. Especially recommended for those in warmer climates, as it is less winter-hardy than other types. Strong, intense flavor.
  • Stiffneck varieties grow one ring of cloves around a stem, there is not a layer of cloves as there are in softneck varieties. They are extremely cold hardy, but do not store as well or long as other varieties. Flavor is more mild than softnecks.
  • Great-headed varieties are not recommended. They are less hardy, and more closely related to leeks than other varieties. Their flavor is more like onion than traditional garlic. Bulbs and cloves are large, with about 4 cloves to a bulb.


garlic braids

Supermarkets typically offer just one choice of garlic. But gardeners who enjoy complex flavors and ethnic cuisines can grow and enjoy the many colorful, tasty varieties that have come from Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Garlic takes up little room and cross-pollination is not an issue, so there’s no reason not to grow as many varieties as you can lay your hands on.


Planting garlic cloves during the fall in well-drained beds after the first frost has passed and the soil is cool is recommended. Cloves can also be planted in late winter as soon as the soil thaws, but fall-planted garlic produces bigger, better bulbs.


Domestically, garlic is stored warm [above 18 °C (64 °F)] and dry to keep it dormant (lest it sprout). It is traditionally hung; softneck varieties are often braided in strands called plaits or grapes. Peeled cloves may be stored in wine or vinegar in the refrigerator. Commercially, garlic is stored at 0 °C (32 °F), in a dry, low-humidity environment. Garlic will keep longer if the tops remain attached.

Garlic bulbs should be clean and white with a dried neck and outer skin and quite firm under pressure. They should be discarded if they are soft or spongy or show signs of mould.

Nutritive value 

3 cloves of garlic (about 9 gm) contain 13 kcal, 3 gm carbohydrate, 1 gm protein and 0gm fat.

Raw garlic is an excellent source (> 20% of the Daily Value, DV per 100 g)) of vitamin C, vitamin B6 and dietary minerals phosphorus, selenium and manganese while it is a good source (10-19% DV) of protein, vitamin B5, thiamine, calcium, iron and zinc. Garlic also contains a unique sulfur compound, allicin which promotes antioxidant activity and functions as a powerful antibacterial and antiviral.

Culinary Uses

Garlic is widely used around the world for its pungent flavor as a seasoning or condiment. The garlic plant’s bulb is the most commonly used part of the plant. With the exception of the single clove types, garlic bulbs are normally divided into numerous fleshy sections called cloves. Garlic cloves are used for consumption (raw or cooked) or for medicinal purposes. They have a characteristic pungent, spicy flavor that mellows and sweetens considerably with cooking.

Other parts of the garlic plant are also edible. The leaves and flowers on the head are sometimes eaten. They are milder in flavor than the bulbs, and are most often consumed while immature and still tender. Immature garlic is sometimes pulled, rather like a scallion, and sold as “green garlic”. When green garlic is allowed to grow past the “scallion” stage, but not permitted to fully mature, it may produce a garlic “round”, a bulb like a boiling onion, but not separated into cloves like a mature bulb. Additionally, the immature flower stalks of the hardneck and elephant types are sometimes marketed for uses similar to asparagus in stir fries. 

Inedible or rarely eaten parts of the garlic plant include the “skin” and root cluster. The papery, protective layers of “skin” over various parts of the plant are generally discarded during preparation for most culinary uses. The root cluster attached to the basal plate of the bulb is the only part not typically considered palatable in any form.

Cooking with garlic

To get the most health benefits from garlic, let it sit for 5-10 minutes after cutting and before cooking or eating.  The alliin and the enzyme alliinase are separated in the garlic cell struture when whole.  Cutting or pressing the garlic ruptures the cells and releases the alliin and alliinase allowing them to mingle and form a powerful new compound called allicin which is a phytonutrient adding to garlic’s health promoting benefits.  The finer the chopping, mincing, pressing, or dicing, the more allicin may be produced.  Allicin also gives garlic it’s pungent smell and “bite”.  The stronger the smell, the better for your health.

When cooking garlic, some of the enzymes will be denatured at 158 degrees Fahrenheit.  Expose them to as little heat as possible and for as short of time period as possible (less than 15 minutes).  This will keep the phytonutrients active.  Research has shown that when crushed garlic was heated, it’s ability to inhibit cancer development in animals was blocked; but, when chopped garlic was allowed to sit for 10 minutes before heating the anticancer activity was preserved.

Health Benefits of garlic

– Garlic has many healing properties, but the most research has been done on its potential to help reduce heart disease. Garlic has been intensively studied, and numerous large studies have shown that taking supplements that mimic fresh garlic can significantly lower LDL cholesterol levels without hurting beneficial HDL cholesterol levels. Garlic appears to act by blocking the liver from making too much LDL cholesterol.

– Garlic supplements can mildly lower blood pressure by dilating or expanding blood vessels. And garlic helps prevent blood clots — and therefore reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke — by decreasing the stickiness of platelets, which are tiny disk-shaped bodies in the blood that are necessary for blood clotting.

– Garlic has anti-inflammatory properties shown to reduce pain and other symptoms in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

– One of the oldest uses of garlic, however, is as an antibiotic. Garlic kills a range of microbes, including viruses, bacteria, fungi, and parasites, and can be effective against such conditions as athlete’s foot, thrush (a fungal infection of the mouth), viral diarrhea, and the ulcer-causing bacteria Helicobacter pylori.

All in all, garlic is packed with healthy nutrients and can be used in many recipes to render a distinct flavor. Stay tuned for recipes using this “stinking rose”!!

Aparna Ramadurai