Can You Prep Garlic Ahead of Time?

Published Categorized as Cooking Tips
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Want to avoid garlic hands? Here’s if you can prep garlic ahead of time, then set it and forget it.

Whether you’re hosting guests on a Saturday or you want to make home cooking easier for yourself during the workweek, you may be wondering if it’s a good idea or not to prep the garlic for your dishes in advance.

According to science, you shouldn’t do that.

Nevertheless, I put it to the test. In this post, I’ll tell you about the theory and the practice of prepping garlic for your home-cooked meals ahead of time.

Why Garlic Smells And Tastes The Way It Does

Not everyone knows that garlic’s sulfurous odor and pungent taste are due to its natural defense mechanisms.

Garlic is a plant that reproduces through bulbs. From a Darwinian point of view, it has an interest in protecting these bulbs from bugs and animals for its species to survive.

Because garlic is a plant, its main protection against bugs and animals is its smell and its taste.

And it knows how to use them!

When garlic is crushed, chopped, or minced, its cells release an enzyme called alliinase, which reacts with another compound called allin to catalyze a chain of chemical reactions that, within 10 to 60 seconds of rupture, leads to the formulation of allicin.

As you can probably guess by now, the allicin is meant to ward off bugs and animals with its smell and taste.

But there’s a twist to the story. We humans find garlic’s pungency to be pleasant… to an extent.

Pungency, Harold McGee explains in his 2009 book, Keys to Good Cooking, isn’t a taste. Instead, it’s a sensation of burning in the mouth produced by the allicin in garlic (as well as a number of other compounds found in piquant food items such as olive oil).

The thing about allicin is that it isn’t a very stable compound.

Shortly after it’s released by the garlic, it starts to break down into a number of organosulfur compounds with a much more overpowering odor and a flavor that many describe as intense.

The longer crushed, chopped, or minced garlic remains this way, the more overwhelming it becomes. Until it’s so aggressive that you’re sorry you added it to your dish in the first place.

Putting Conventional Wisdom to the Test

Conventional wisdom says that the best way to use garlic is to crush it just before sautéing, boiling, or mixing it with the other ingredients in your dish. You can prep the cloves ahead of time by peeling them, but don’t crush or chop them.

The question is, should you listen?

To find out the answer so that you won’t have to, I went to the grocery store and stocked up on Italian pasta, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh garlic cloves.

Over the course of the next two days, I cooked Linguine Aglio e Olio—a traditional Neapolitan dish prepared with pasta, garlic, olive oil, and some salty and starchy pasta water—in three ways.

I prepared the first dish with freshly minced garlic, the second with garlic that I had minced ahead of time and refrigerated in a mason jar for 12 hours, and the third with pre-minced garlic refrigerated for 24 hours.

The results?

The pasta dish with the freshly minced garlic tasted just right. The garlic that had been stored for 12 hours was overpowering, and its counterpart that had been stored for 24 hours was frankly unbearable.

To rule out the chance that it was just my cooking, I repeated the test with another dish from a different cuisine.

I prepared hummus—a staple Middle Eastern spread customarily prepared of canned chickpeas, tahini, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, salt, black pepper, and garlic—in three ways.

Once again, I used freshly minced garlic for the first hummus dish, minced garlic 12 hours in advance for the second, and minced garlic 24 hours in advance for the third. The results weren’t that different from my first test.

The garlic overpowered all other ingredients in the second and third batches to the extent that the hummus was “too garlicky” and not very pleasant to eat.

The Bottom Line

So? What does it all mean? Can you prep garlic ahead of time?

To give you the long answer short, yes, you can prep garlic ahead of time. You can peel the cloves and store them in the fridge for easy access, but don’t crush, chop, or mince them. If you do, the garlic will become overpowering sooner rather than later, and it will ruin any dish you add it to.

By Jim Stonos

When Jim isn't in the kitchen, he is usually spending time with family and friends, and working with the HCW editorial team to answer the questions he used to ask himself back when he was learning the ropes of cooking.