Garlic 101

What Is Garlic?

Garlic is a bulbous plant of the genus allium. There are around 500 members of the allium genus which includes other well known plants such as leeks, shallots and onions. Alliums are in turn part of the botanical Alliaceae family.

The bulb grows underground and sends shoots (scapes) into the air. At the top of the shoots are sometimes found garlic bubils.

Why’s it called the stinking rose? We don’t really know. “Stinking” is obvious, “rose” might be a reference to the shape of the bulb.

The most commonly found garlic in the supermarkets is allium sativum which basically means “cultivated garlic”. This is subdivided into hardneck and softneck varieties.

Other forms of garlic sometimes found in supermarkets include allium ursinum (wild garlic, native to Northern Europe and Asia) and allium ampeloprasum (elephant garlic). Elephant garlic looks appealing to garlic lovers due to its size but in fact the taste is mild, almost bland. Other forms of garlic include allium vineale (crow garlic) which has very small cloves and is reported to literally “stone the crows”.

Buying and Cooking

Garlic grows under the ground in large, slightly off-white bulbs (or “heads”) which are covered by a papery skin. Inside each bulb is anything from ten to twenty individual cloves which themselves have a pinkish skin.

It’s important to remember the difference between bulbs and cloves when cooking!

When buying garlic, make sure the heads are dry with plenty of paper covering. If you can see green shoots then the garlic is probably too old and/or wasn’t dried properly. Cloves that are far too old will crumple under the slightest pressure from the fingers.

Garlic can be used in many ways – raw or cooked; whole, crushed or sliced; as a main ingredient or as a seasoning. Raw garlic is stronger than cooked, minced stronger than sliced. Roasted whole it has a totally different taste to eaten crushed and raw. A relatively new idea is black garlic, which is sweet and sticky with a hint of balsamic vinegar taste.

Origin and History

Botanists believe that garlic probably originated in central Asia thousands of years ago. Clay models of garlic were found in Egyptian tombs – six dried garlic bulbs were in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Garlic is one of the plants featured at Plant Cultures, a website from Kew Gardens that covers a wide range of cultural and environmental issues relating to South Asia and its history of links to Britain

The leaves of the garlic plant are pointed which is probably where it derived its name: “gaar” being an old gothic word for “spear” gives us “spear leek”.

Most people associate garlic with bad breath – chewing raw parsley is often recommended to help reduce the smell. The Roman poet Horace detested the smell of garlic and considered it vulgar and a sign of an evil spirit. Even Shakespeare mentions garlic – and is not complimentary.

Garlic is even mentioned in the Christian Bible [Numbers 11: 4-6].

Uses and Benefits

Garlic grows well with many other plants and help protect them from fungus and pests. Scientists at Newcastle University have shown that a barrier of garlic oil is an effective slug and snail repellent.

Garlic also has a reputation in folklore for various health benefits.

In 1999 the average garlic consumption in the US was more than three pounds of garlic per person. The “stinking rose” has come a long way since ancient Egyptian times.