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The Science of Cooking With Garlic

Understanding allicin — the sulfur compound behind garlic’s unique taste and smell — just may help you be a better cook.

| November 15, 2012

  • Pressed Garlic
    Pressing garlic releases the enzyme alliinase, forming the sulfur compound allicin, which is responsible for garlic’s complex flavor. 
    Photo By Fotolia/Richard Griffin
  • The Complete Book Of Garlic
    “The Complete Book of Garlic” is the most comprehensive and in-depth guide available to what surely should be the next gourmet frontier. From 'Ajo Rojo' to 'Zemo,' Ted Jordan Meredith presents illustrated profiles of nearly 150 cultivars. Detailed chapters cover natural history, the history of garlic in cultivation, the nuances of cuisine and culture, therapeutic benefits, plant structure, how to cultivate, curing and storage, taxonomy, pests and diseases and chemistry. 
    Cover Courtesy Timber Press

  • Pressed Garlic
  • The Complete Book Of Garlic

There’s a lot to know about raw garlic in its various forms. In The Complete Book of Garlic (Timber Press, 2008), Ted Jordan Meredith tackles what he calls the next gourmet frontier, giving detailed information for cooks, chefs and natural health enthusiasts. The Complete Book of Garlic gives guides to planting and growing garlic for the best results in the kitchen and in home remedies. In this excerpt from the “Cuisine” chapter, Meredith explains how garlic gets its taste. 

Buy this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Complete Book of Garlic.

Garlic’s composition, chemistry and enzymatic interactions determine how different preparation methods affect its taste and thus the taste of the culinary preparations that include it. These same preparation methods also define and determine the therapeutic effects of garlic. Understanding this nexus helps us better understand our culinary choices. Considerations of taste and health both help shape the methods we may choose to apply.

Allicin, Alliin and Alliinase

The chemistry of garlic is complex and dynamic but let us briefly touch upon three fundamental constituents and the role they play in taste and therapeutic effect. The sulfur compound allicin and its derivatives are substantially responsible for garlic’s pungently complex flavor and aroma as well as for a substantial amount of its therapeutic benefit, yet a whole clove of garlic contains no allicin and has essentially no aroma. How can this be?

Allicin is only created when the enzyme alliinase interacts with the sulfur compound alliin. When alliinase and alliin are brought together, the creation of allicin occurs with great rapidity. Alliinase and alliin are held in isolation in separate cells of the garlic clove and are only brought together when the cell walls are compromised, such as occurs with crushing, chopping, slicing, and biting.

Try this. Smell a whole healthy clove of garlic, then smash it with the flat of a knife and smell again. The aroma instantly goes from nothing to intensely pungent. The creation of allicin happens that quickly.

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