There’s something so satisfying about that short moment when you toss chopped or minced garlic in your frying pan and it comes into contact with the hot butter for the first time. The bits and pieces of garlic start to sizzle as they release their perfume into the air and their flavors into the butter.
It can also be incredibly frustrating when you get it wrong—and end up burning the garlic. It comes out smelling unpleasant and tasting bitter in a way that practically ruins your dish.
In this post, I’m going to show you how to get it right every single time.
How to sauté garlic in butter?
To sauté garlic in butter, peel and mince the garlic cloves. Add a knob of butter to your frying pan, and preheat it for 2-3 minutes over medium to medium-high heat. Toss the minced garlic in and cook it, stirring every now and then, for 15-30 seconds.
You sauté garlic to cook the rawness and take the bite off of it, as well as to release its aromas and flavors into your dish. When the bits and pieces of garlic in your pan turn golden and you can smell the garlicky perfume in the air, you know that it’s done.
Sautéing is one of those fancy terms which professional chefs like to use—and that get many home cooks intimidated.
If you leave the name (which means “to jump” in French) aside, it’s actually simpler than most people think. In fact, sautéing is as simple as pan-frying food over medium to medium-high heat quickly and in as little cooking oil or fat as possible.
Sautéing works best when your food comes into sudden contact with hot cooking oil, like avocado oil or extra-virgin olive oil, or with fat, like butter, lard, tallow, or duck fat.
Make sure to preheat your frying pan, giving the butter enough time to melt inside and heat up.
You know that the butter in your frying pan is hot enough to cook in when it stops foaming and comes out clearer. This is a sign that the water in it (approximately 15%) has evaporated, allowing the internal temperature of the butter to rise above the boiling point of water, 212°F (100°C).
Garlic burns easily, especially when crushed, chopped, and minced. To sauté garlic without burning it, pay close attention to the cooking temperature and cooking time.
Always sauté garlic over medium to medium-high heat, with a preference for lower cooking temperatures. Never use high heat; garlic starts to burn at a temperature of 284°F (100°C) or higher. High heat will scorch the garlic on the outside and leave it raw or undercooked on the inside.
Sauté garlic for 15 to 30 seconds. Add the liquids or the remaining ingredients for your recipe immediately after. Occasionally, it will take you 45-60 seconds to sauté a large amount of garlic in butter that’s not so hot, but most of the time you won’t need more than 15-30 seconds.
Keep stirring the garlic as it cooks. Those small bits and pieces of garlic in your frying pan can burn quickly on one side if you don’t stir them.
Use the timer app on your phone (or ask Alexa, Siri, or Google to count down the time) until you get used to this technique and learn how to read the cues and instinctively tell when the garlic in your frying pan is done.
Should You Cook Garlic Before or After Onions?
One of the questions that probably popped up in your mind as you were reading this post was, “So, should I cook garlic before or after onions?”
The general rule is to cook the onions before the garlic. Pan-fry the onions over medium heat and add the garlic 15-30 seconds before you add cooking liquid, like water, stock, or wine, or you remove the frying pan from the heat.
Think of garlic more as a herb, like oregano and thyme, and less as the main ingredient, like onions and carrots. Herbs add aroma and flavor to your dish, take very little time to cook, and burn fast if you cook them for too long.
Onions, depending on how you like them, take some time to sweat (2-3 minutes), sauté (5-7 minutes), or brown (9-10 minutes). You know that the onions in your frying pan are done when they become translucent. From that moment on, it’s your call how long to keep cooking them for based on how caramelized you like them.
If you cook onions and garlic together, you risk burning the garlic by the time the onions are done. Burnt garlic has an unpleasant smell and bitter taste that will virtually ruin your dish—no matter how well you followed the rest of the recipe.
Why Do You Fry Onions and Garlic First?
Onions and garlic are a classic combination in most recipes. In case you’ve ever wondered, here’s why.
Cooking is about building layers of taste into your food. You melt butter into a pan. Butter is creamy and fatty and has a milky and nutty taste.
Fatty foods are tasty because flavors dissolve well into fat. Sweat onions in butter and they will come out soft, sweet, and savory. The onions will also release their smell and taste into the butter.
Add garlic, and you build up a third layer of assertiveness and pungency into the base of your dish, mixing the perfume and flavor of the garlic with the onions and butter in your pan. At this stage, you will probably add a pinch of salt to balance out the sweetness of the onions.
Before you’ve added cooking liquid and the rest of your ingredients to your dish, you’ve created a base that will give it a rich aroma and profound flavor as it cooks.
You’ve basically layered the taste of melted butter, caramelized onions, and cooked garlic—and created a foundation that will season the rest of the ingredients of your dish as soon as they come in contact with it.
The Bottom Line
Sautéing garlic in butter is easier than it sounds.
Remember to preheat your pan, give the butter enough time to heat up, and cook the garlic over medium to medium-high heat for no longer than 15-30 seconds.
You know it’s done when the garlic turns golden in color and releases its perfume into the air. This is when you should either take the pan off the heat or add cooking liquids and the rest of your ingredients to your dish.
How to Sauté Garlic in Butter
- Frying pan
- 1 knob butter (French unsalted butter)
- 3 cloves garlic (fresh or dried garlic)
- Finely chop 2-3 cloves of garlic with a chef's knife on your cutting board.
- Add 1 knob of butter (2-3 tablespoons) to your frying pan. Set the heat to medium, then allow your pan and the butter in at least 2-3 minutes to heat up.
- When the butter stops to foam and becomes fairly clear, this means that most the water contained in it has evaporated and your butter is ready for cooking.
- Toss the garlic into the pan. Sauté it for 15-30 seconds, stirring as it cooks. As soon as the garlic becomes golden in color and releases its aroma into the air in your kitchen, it's done.
- Add cooking liquid and the remaining ingredients from your recipe. I saw making a recipe as I was writing this how-to, so I poured beef bouillon. Or take the frying pan away from the heat and use the garlic butter at a later stage in your cooking.