Garlic, Wonderful Garlic

Getting to know garlic, a kitchen staple


Imagine what we could have learned in Latin class had we paid attention. Take that old friend of ours garlic for instance. The Latin name is allium satuvim. The modern word for garlic has its roots (no pun intended) in the old Anglo-Saxon words gar, or spear, and leac, or leek. When growing the plant looks like a spear, hence the name. Why leek? Garlic and leeks are cousins in the allium family.

Garlic has been found in the tombs of Egyptian mummies and was well known to the ancient Chinese, Greeks and Romans. In those days it was not a food that the upper class ate. (Fools that they were.) It was generally eaten by the lower class. It was thought to make one strong so it was a regular in the diets of laborers and slaves.

The smell of garlic has some interesting science behind it. As many things in nature have a defense mechanism, so does garlic. When just sitting there it has no real odor. Cut, smash, or otherwise break it open and that unmistakable smell wafts up to greet you. Given the popularity of garlic I’d say that defense plan isn’t working out well at all.

So what’s behind this smell thing anyway? An amino acid, containing sulfur, called cysteine in the clove is stable until it’s cut or mashed. When this happens it mixes with another enzyme and produces ammonia and pyruvic acid. This further breaks down in to diallyl disulfide. This compound is the major odor producer in the smell. By the way, the smell in an onion is produced much the same way. Only the onion enzymes react a little differently. And, when the odor compounds mix with your eye fluids they make a mild sulfuric acid. The result is tears. See our video about how to cut onions with no tears.

The United States produces about 216,000 tons of garlic yearly and Gilroy, California calls itself the garlic capital of the world. All well and good but by far and away the leading producer of garlic is China with about 22,000,000 tons of garlic followed by India. And the only reliable way  to tell Chinese garlic from good ol’ US of A garlic is to buy it from a farmers market, CSA, or grow it yourself. Which is not hard to do. One pound of bulbs will grow 7 to 10 pounds of garlic.

Most of the garlic crop, about 65% ends up dehydrated, 15% is left for seed crop, and about 20% is sold as fresh.

There are two types of garlic, hard neck and soft neck. Hard neck is better suited for growing in the northern, cooler climates while soft neck is better for southern climates. Hard neck produces scapes, that wonderfully curled seed stalk we cut off in the spring and turn into pesto or grill.

If you are going to plant garlic the cloves should be planted before the first frost. Put them 2 inches deep and 6 inches apart. Keep nice straight rows now, no wiggly lines. Harvest the crop when the stalks begin to turn brown, but before you pull the heads, check one or two out to see how they look. We have a video series on Youtube about harvesting, preparing, and planting garlic you start watching here with how to prepare garlic for planting. You’ll harvest your little globes of goodness sometime in July.

Below is a recipe for Gambas Al Ajillo, one of our favorite appetizers. It’s from a restaurant in Kingston, Canada called Chez Piggy. If you ever get near Kingston you must visit this great restaurant, the food is excellent. Just try the Gambas at home for a preview of what to expect.


Gambas al Ajillo

Yield: 6 servings

This recipe is straight from the Chez Piggy cook book and never fails to please. Simple to make, relatively quick, and your guests will beg for more. We use jalapeño peppers fresh from the garden.


  • 28 medium shrimp peeled
  • 8 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons chili peppers coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons garlic coarsely chopped
  • salt to taste


  1. Heat a heavy cast iron skillet until hot, add olive oil. When oil is hot, but not smoking, quickly add the shrimp. Test by dipping a shrimp tail in the oil, it should turn pink immediately. Briefly cook one side, turn over and add garlic and chili peppers. Cook until done, but do not allow the garlic to brown or it the whole mess will turn bitter.
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