Garlic belongs to the allium family of vegetables which also includes onions, leeks, chives, scallions and shallots. While this family of vegetables is widely recognized for their pungent taste, it's their health benefits that have caught the attention of researchers.
Garlic's beneficial properties and distinctive smell come from its natural sulphur compounds, called allyl sulphides. Garlic also contains flavonoids, phytochemicals, vitamin C and B6, manganese and selenium. It's the combination of disease-fighting chemicals and nutrients that give garlic its health food status.
There is considerable evidence that garlic and its sulphur compounds can inhibit the cancer process. The evidence is particularly strong for digestive tract cancers. In fact, one study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate raw of cooked garlic on a regular basis were half as likely to develop stomach cancer, compared to people who ate little or no garlic.
Scientists believe that garlic can help protect against cancer by slowing or preventing the growth of cancer cells, as well as ridding the body of harmful carcinogens through the liver and intestinal tract.
Garlic may also be good for the heart. Preliminary research suggests that garlic can modestly lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure. Garlic can also hinder the ability of platelets in the blood to clump together, a risk factor for blood clots that can lead to heart attack or stroke.
The sulphur compounds in garlic also have anti-inflammatory properties. It's thought that garlic may also help fight the pain, inflammation and cartilage damage of arthritis.
Peeling, chopping or crushing fresh garlic helps activate an enzyme called allinase, which sets in motion a series of chemical reactions that produce disease-fighting sulphur compounds. Experts recommend letting crushed or chopped garlic to stand for 10 to 15 minutes before cooking to allow this chemical reaction to occur.
Nutrient information per one clove of garlic:
Source: Canadian Nutrient File, 2007b
There are many varieties of garlic grown around the world but most of the garlic grown in Canada is either "hardneck", the most common, or "softneck" which grows less well in our soil and climate.
Chileno is a type of garlic from Mexico with a reddish colour and sharp taste. "Elephant garlic", characterized by its very large bulbs, is not actually garlic at all, but a relative of the leek. Spanish garlic, called rocambole, is similar to a shallot.
Garlic is also available as flakes, powder, salt, extract and even juice. I recommend you use fresh garlic for superior flavor and health benefits.
Look for bulbs that are firm, plump, non-sprouted and unshrivelled. The cloves should not be spongy when you press on them. The paper-like covering around each bulb should be intact, dry and not ripped or broken. Avoid bulbs that have a powdery mould on them or smell musty.
Keep garlic in a cool, dark place. Store garlic in a loosely covered container or garlic pot. Keep it out of the sun and away from the stove or any other heat source.
Garlic will keep for a few weeks to a few months, depending on the variety, its age and the storage conditions. Discard cloves have become shriveled, dried or moldy. Garlic does not keep well in the refrigerator; it needs to be dry.
Garlic can be peeled, pureed and frozen for longer storage.
Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides for a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole.
Peeling: Place the cloves on a cutting board and lay the flat side of a broad chefs knife on top. Tap the knife firmly with your closed fist. This should split the peels without smashing the cloves. Or you can try one of the many kitchen gadgets that are supposed to making peeling a snap. No guarantees though!
Chopping: Cut the cloves in half lengthwise. Make several cuts the length of the clove with the tip of the knife, and then cut crosswise. The more finely the garlic is chopped, the more flavorful it will be. Or you can chop the garlic in a food processor.
Sautéing: Be careful not to burn garlic when sautéing as it will turn bitter and ruin the dish you are preparing. If the recipe calls for onions and garlic to be cooked together, add the garlic after the onions have been sautéed for a few minutes. The juices released by the onions as they soften will help protect the garlic from burning.
Roasting: Roasting garlic takes the edge off its pungent flavour and results in a delicious mild and sweet flavour. To roast garlic, preheat the oven to 375°F. Remove any loose outer papery skin (but ensure the cloves of garlic stay attached), and then use a sharp knife to cut off the top ¼-inch of the cloves of garlic, exposing the flesh.
Drizzle with olive oil and then wrap the garlic in foil or place in a clay garlic roaster. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the garlic is soft and fragrant. When cool, simply squeeze the roasted garlic from each clove into a bowl. Store the roasted garlic in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
If you love garlic you know that it partners well with many foods. It's used in many classic dishes in most cuisines across the world including Italian, Mexican, Indian, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian. From aioli (garlic mayonnaise) to tzatziki (yogurt dip) cooking would be much less exciting without the contribution of garlic!
Healthy Ways to Enjoy Garlic
- Add sautéed garlic to scrambled eggs, omelets, frittatas and stratas.
- Spread roasted garlic on bread and sandwiches instead of butter or mayonnaise.
- Mash fresh or roasted garlic with white beans, olive oil, lemon juice and chives for a mouth-watering filling for a wrap or sandwich. Click here for a recipe.
- Enjoy a bowl of mouthwatering soup made with roasted garlic and butternut squash. Click here for a recipe.
- Marinate pressed garlic in olive oil and use this garlic-infused oil for salad dressings and marinades.
- Add chopped raw garlic to marinades for meat, chicken or seafood.
- When roasting lamb, chicken or beef, insert slivers of raw garlic into shallow slits all over the surface of the meat for great flavor.
- When seasoning cooked vegetables, add chopped garlic along with other herbs and spices.
- Lightly sauté garlic and fresh baby spinach for a delicious and nutritious side dish.
- Toss sautéed garlic and prawns with olive oil, fresh tomatoes and cooked pasta for a delicious mid-week meal. Click here for a recipe.
- Add roasted garlic to homemade dips and spreads. Serve with fresh cut vegetables or whole grain pita chips. Click here for a recipe.
Did you know?
- Garlic cloves that have sprouted can still be used. However you may need to include more of them in your recipe as they will have lost some of their pungency and flavor.
- Chewing on raw parsley after eating garlic may help take away garlic breath.
- Rubbing your hands on a metal faucet can help remove the smell of raw garlic from your hands.
Garlic Growers Association of Ontario
University of Maryland Medical Centre
World's Healthiest Foods