Anthony Bourdain once wrote – I believe I’m paraphrasing Kitchen Confidential, but I can’t find the citation – that anyone who cooks with pre-minced garlic should be sentenced never to taste fresh garlic again, and I have to agree: I adore garlic, but the stuff in the jar is just plain nasty and, unfortunately, it is all over the inexplicably famous Garlic Fries at AT&T Park. I seriously cannot imagine what the kerfuffle is about because, despite their undeniable cult following, all the foul-smelling frites do for me is turn a perfectly good $9 beer into $16 worth of mouthwash (don’t even get me started on the $7 ballpark price tag for the beastly little things, which makes the neighboring $10 airplane-bottle of Fetzer seem like a downright bargain).
It did get me thinking, however: Why is it that the stuff in the jar – presumably freshly cut and quickly sealed in its packaging – tastes nothing whatsoever like the cloves from whence it comes? It’s not just that the jarred stuff loses the rich fragrance and pungent sweet-hot bite of the real thing, although certainly that is the case; it’s that something baaaaad seems to happen after garlic has been pre-chopped and stored, as if all the distinctive sharp, spiky flavors of garlic flatten themselves out in order to make room for an acrid waft and a foul, bitter taste more redolent of rancid oil than a delightfully stinky rose. I don’t really understand how this happens, so I tooled around on Google and consulted McGee’s On Food and Cooking, from which I gleaned lots of interesting things about garlic, including…
- Why it repels vampires (pungent, sulfurous flavor compounds evolved in the plant in order to ward off animals which keen on eating them before they could go to seed);
- Why it turns blue when pickled (pH-sensitive anthocyanins and anthoxanthins, which also account for garlic’s status as antioxidant and homeopathic curative);
- Why the method of preparation has such a dramatic impact on flavor (pressed, chopped, and whole cloves of garlic become chemically distinct, as does garlic cooked in oil vs. butter, poached vs. roasted, and at high temperatures vs. low ones – all because of the volatile molecular behavior of sulfur-based compounds common to the onion family more generally);
- What garlic breath is really all about (two factors, actually, including a close chemical relative of skunk spray that stays resident in the mouth right after eating, and sulfides apparently generated by the digestive process many hours later);
- And – to get back on-thread – why storing garlic is generally a pretty bad idea (storing chopped garlic under oil, even airtight, encourages the growth of deadly botulism; and the undesirable effects of oxygen on the sulfur compounds otherwise protected inside the cellular wall).
Still and all, most of this explains why pre-processed garlic should have less flavor, but not really why it should taste bad. My pet theory, not entirely based on science, is that the intrinsic badness of jarred garlic is a consequence of two things: The degradation of the good flavors (this is well understood: some of the sulfurous compounds responsible for garlic’s trademark aromatic punch die out in contact with air); and the use of unsaturated vegetable oils as storage aids, possibly including the application of acids (in order to retard botulism, a worthy cause, to be sure, but not one conducive to a good garlicky taste), and which unequivocally contribute a bitter and rubbery note due to their more reactive nature.
Happily, it also suggests a way forward: Cheer the Giants, but don’t be suckered by the Garlic Fry hype, save your money for another beer. And when you just have to have garlic fries – I certainly do so, regularly and unapologetically – make them yourself, with freshly chopped garlic parsley cooked gently in butter, and for which I promise a recipe soon enough.