All too often, much emphasis in culinary science is given to finding and using the best possible ingredients. Yet this is but the beginning; cooking is process more than anything ~ and as I have found in my years in kitchens, most cooks, even chefs of excellence, have little idea what that process is.
Let us consider garlic, a common vegetable with uncommon properties. We all use it; and while we're told to choose the best possible cloves for making our dinners, most of us wouldn't know a good clove if it bit our pallets. Yet it is perfectly possible to make wonders from any clove of garlic if we understand what we're trying to accomplish.
There are four elements within the garlic that need concern us: a little water, a little fiber, a little sugar and something called umami, a mysterious substance that is now getting a lot of attention. We have always used it; umami is the key ingredient in chicken stock; it is why we powder chicken stock, so that umami can be stored and made available easily. In terms of taste, umami is what we call savory.
Yet umami is, in cooking terms, fragile. Poor preparation will destroy the savory taste we desire: and that is why, so often, the garlic in a dish served in a restaurant seems to taste so much better than at home. Handling garlic with care is a learned skill ~ but rest assured, anyone can learn it.
The umami is not the only flavor in the garlic we want. It is of considerable necessity that we also caramelize the garlic's sugar. Caramelization, or the browning of sugar, imparts a sweet, mild flavor to food. It is the mixture of this sweetness with the savory of umami that makes garlic the king of vegetables.
In part, that is because garlic will release its umami and caramelize so quickly. Once the vegetable fibers are broken and the clove is pulped (I was taught to crush the clove gently with the side of the knife on a board, until utterly flat, then to slice the smashed clove with five or six rapid, mincing cuts), the water between the fibers will evaporate in hot oil nearly instantly. In a second or two, the whole flavor is imparted to the oil, which is then transferred to whatever dish we would like to concoct. This is what Goodfellas meant with the words, "liquefies in the pan."
Yet this is where garlic is so vulnerable. If the fibers are not wholly broken, and the garlic introduced to the pan in large pieces, the water will not boil away and both the sugar and savory will be drowned, creating too little flavor. Too much oil in the pan and the flavor will be lost in a slick of grease. Too much heat and the sugar will move past caramelization and will burn, destroying any benefit with the umami. And then, once the water evaporates and the garlic has reached the zone of liquefaction, it is heartily important that we pounce on the dish and add something new, like onions, that contain new water that will sustain the savory flavor we've created and new sugars to be caramelized in turn.
It is all a dance . . . one that a chef will accomplish a hundred times in an hour with as little thought as a ballerina's extension, once the timing is practiced and perfected. A large part of the process is to counteract laziness: to be precise about the amount of oil, to be precise about the crushing of the garlic clove, to be precise about the heat and the time before adding more foods to the pan. Each element is accomplished in rhythm, with no part ill-considered or missed.
In mastering this, it makes a change to daily fare that will convince everyone that you must have found the best onions, the best plantains, the best chicken breast. Ask a chef to show you and then practice, practice, practice.
About the Creator
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