Garlic: A Brilliant Bulb

Photography by: Dawn Smith
Garlic: A Brilliant Bulb
Fresh is best
There are several theories about why garlic is so good for us. Until recently, it was assumed that allicin, the source of garlic's strong odor, was the key to its health benefits. But Stram says allicin starts to deteriorate almost immediately in the gastrointestinal tract, where it's metabolized into other compounds, including S-allyl-L-cysteine (SAC), which scientists think may also play a role. Others credit the healing powers to alliin, an odorless substance that turns to allicin when garlic is crushed or cut.

To get the most from the herb, Stram recommends eating it fresh. "Supplements can be beneficial, but there are so many, they're so different, and the dosing is iffy," he says. Allicin levels can vary from 4,000 to 6,000 micrograms per dose, and it's often difficult to tell from the label just how many micrograms you're getting. By contrast, an average seven-gram clove of garlic contains between 7,000 and 21,000 mcg of allicin. And aged-garlic supplements have no allicin; they credit SAC for efficacy.

For all these reasons, many experts recommend eating at least one fresh clove a day; whether smashed into a paste, lightly roasted, or sauteed with your favorite healthy foods, you're getting garlicky goodness in its most natural form. For those who can't stomach a daily dose of fresh garlic, Dave Grotto, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and president of Nutrition Housecall, a nutrition consulting firm in Elmhurst, Ill., suggests getting some fresh and also taking a supplement.

Whether fresh or in supplement form, however, garlic can't overcome the effects of a bad diet. "The biggest impact you're going to get is from your overall diet," says Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center at Stanford Medical School. "If you're eating garlic fries, that's not good. If you're eating garlicky vegetable stir-fries, that's great."

Bringing it home
When shopping for fresh garlic, your options are many and flavorful. For starters, garlic comes in two major categories: soft neck and hard neck. Soft-neck garlic, with its papery white skin and long shelf life, is the kind you usually see in grocery stores. Hard-neck garlic, revered for its many and distinctly flavored varieties, can be found at your local farmers' market or through Web resources such as Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org), The Garlic Store (www.thegarlicstore.com), Filaree Farm (www.filareefarm.com) or the Territorial Seed Company (www.territorial-seed.com). Available in a range of colors, from white to purple-striped, bulbs of hard-neck garlic tend to have fewer and larger cloves than soft-neck varieties. Hard-neck garlic is also characterized by a stiff central stem that grows out of the bulb. This stem eventually forms a flower head, called a scape, which looks like miniature cloves of garlic and is an edible springtime treat.

Most fresh garlic will keep at least six months in your kitchen, depending on the variety. While you'll often be told to store garlic in a cool, dark place like the refrigerator, Bernier says fridges are too moist. She suggests simply keeping it out in the room. "As long as you don't keep it in a sunny window, you're fine. Kitchens tend to be warm and dry, which I've found to be ideal conditions for storing garlic."

For cooking, Bernier prefers simple preparations. She likes to slice several cloves and saute them in olive oil, remove them just before they turn brown, toss greens or steamed veggies in the oil, and then sprinkle the crispy garlic on top. Or she'll squeeze out the soft pulp to thicken soups or slather on bread. "I can never get enough garlic," she says.