Who doesn’t love garlic? We certainly do. It flavors pretty much all the meals we cook and our house often is filled with the smell of garlic simmering in butter, much to our neighbors delight. We eat it raw, cooked, roasted and we love it so much that a few years ago our small vegetable patch was given exclusively to growing garlic. Fresh garlic is now back in season and selling at farmer’s markets. There’s never been a better time to talk about this little vegetable pearl. Garlic is really a little miracle in itself and this is why.
Humans have been cultivating garlic for over 7,000 years, both for food and for medicinal purposes. It originated in China and is part of the Allium family that includes onions, shallots and leeks. The average European consumes 1 and a half cloves of garlic every day, which is nothing, compared to the Chinese who consume a whopping 8 cloves a day. The garlic plant is easy to grow and can be grown year-round in mild climates, however different strains have been bred to suit different climates and may not do so well dependent upon soil type, moisture, latitude and altitude. There are 70 different varieties of garlic found worldwide that can be split into two groups, softneck and hardneck. Softneck varieties (Artichokes, Silverskins, Creoles) have no flower and a semi hard stalk, they produces many more cloves with a softer grassier taste, they can be planted mechanically and can be stored for longer than the hardneck varieties. This makes them very popular with supermarkets and mass producers. Hardneck garlic (Porcelain, Rocamboles, Purple Stripe) produces a stiff flower stalk and spicy and well-flavoured cloves. However it doesn’t keep as long as the softneck varieties and requires more care to grow so is typically found at farmers markets and small-scale growers. Generally mass produced garlic varieties are chosen for their productivity rather than their flavor.
Here is the science bit, but we recommend you continue to read on as it could change the way you cook and eat garlic. Garlic is the most pungent of the allium family. Each garlic clove has a high concentration of the enzyme alliinase locked away in little compartments. As soon as you cut or crush garlic the alliinase is released and comes into contact with oxygen and water. This creates a chemical reaction that turns the alliinase into allicin and other pungent types of sulfur. It is the allicin that gives garlic the pungent fiery taste on the tongue. The chemical transformation from alliinase to allicin happens in spurts every 6.5 minutes. It takes a total of 90 minutes for all the alliinase to turn into allicin. So if you are using raw garlic in a dish it will take 90 minutes for the full strength of allicin’s punchy flavour to be reached. When garlic is put into an acidic environment like vinegar, also when it is ingested or cooked, the alliinase enzyme is permanently deactivated so it cannot turn into the pungent sulfur allicin. This is why when you roast whole garlic it doesn’t produce any allicin and hence it has none of that fiery garlic punch. If you want that garlic punch in a cooked dish, you must crushed or chopped the garlic and leave it for 90 minutes to get the most allicin before cooking. However allicin is not a stable compound and will begin to brake down into its component parts. It takes around 45 minutes when cooked and around 5 days at room temperature for it to break down into it’s oil soluble and water soluble compounds. When you eat raw garlic the body breaks down the allicin and it is these compounds that give garlic the majority of its healing properties.
Garlic has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years and is still by far one of the best ways of getting rid of a common cold. More than 160 of the elements that make a bulb of garlic are bioactive, meaning they can affect our body. Garlic has exceptional anti-viral and anti fungal properties and it does not damage the healthful intestinal flora. It is very rich in Vitamin C, which give the immune system a boost but also in Vitamin B6 and Manganese.
Garlic is rich in selenium, which aids the thyroid gland, supports the health of the immune system and prevents DNA damage by limiting the activity of free radicals.
The allicin formed from crushing raw garlic is a very powerful antibiotic that kills bacteria including certain bacteria that have become immune to modern antibiotics such as MRSA staph. It can be used to treat snake bites, get rid of E. coli, kill bacteria on foods and keep cuts and abrasion free of infections but it only works when applied directly to the wound or infection. This is because as soon as you ingest the raw garlic the saliva and stomach break down the allicin into its oil soluble and water soluble compounds. The oil soluble compounds are what gives you garlicky breath. They are a powerful antibacterial that can enter the lymphatic system and they strengthen the immune system by stimulating the body to build antibodies. The oil soluble compounds have also been shown to have success in inhibiting lung, skin and breast cancer. The water soluble compounds of allicin have no antibacterial properties and no smell but have excellent circulatory system benefits including lowering blood pressure, blood sugar, triglycerides and total cholesterol and inhibits clotting.
Scientists have synthesized these compounds but found they simply did not affect the body in the same way as natural garlic. This is because it is not just the individual elements of the garlic compounds but the way all of them interact together with the body that makes garlic such a powerful medicinal food.
Now, as we already said, China produces at least 75% of all the garlic worldwide. Almost all the garlic in supermarkets comes from China. In the last 15-20 years they have cornered nearly the entire market by producing garlic at incredibly low prices often below the actual cost of growing it, so that no local producers can compete. The Chinese agricultural industry has taken a lot of flack over the years for it’s poor health standards, wages and dangerous use of banned pesticides. There is very little regulation on organic standards in China and pretty much anyone can put an organic label on their garlic to turn a profit. Furthermore the Chinese garlic is often bleached to make it look nice and white and more often than not it is irradiated to give it a long shelf life and kill off bacteria. Irradiation distorts the DNA structure so it will no longer be able to sprout. The irradiation also prevents the healthful compounds in garlic from forming so it has practically no discernible health benefits. Ouch! So make sure you don’t buy garlic from China. Look for local and organic garlic, particularly the hard stem varieties. Fresh (or wet) garlic is in season at the moment and is a joy for the palate and your health.
Here is a really quick recipe we use all the time for making stir fries. We use plenty of garlic and add the sauce right at the end of cooking the stir fry so the garlic doesn’t burn and it has the full allicin flavour punch. It also makes a wonderful marinade for tofu, that you can slow roast in the oven.
1 bunch fresh coriander
1 red chilli
3 cloves of fresh garlic
1 inch nob of peeled fresh ginger
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tsp of sesame seed oil
2 tblsp of dark tamari
Put all the ingredients together in a blender and whizz them to a smooth paste, you may need to add a splash of water sometimes. Add it to your stir fry right at the end and cook for a further 5-10 seconds before serving.