Stinking facts about garlic

Known as the stinking rose — and related to onions, shallots, chives, and leeks — garlic has a distinctive flavor and needs a lit bit of care when handling it.

Three complete heads of garlic rest on a cutting board.
Photo: Unsplash/Mike Kenneally.

Garlic has a beautiful flavor, but it can be quite strong — one may even say, it stinks!

The sharp flavor of garlic is produced because of a chemical reaction that takes place when the garlic cloves are cut, chopped, minced, crushed, pressed or puréed. This chemical reaction produces allicin which is the culprit for garlic’s strong flavor. Garlic not only makes our food flavorful but is a good source of calcium, phosphorus and selenium, and a very good source of vitamin C, vitamin B6 and manganese.

One unpleasant side effect of consuming garlic is that the oils spread through the lung tissue and stay in the body long after it has been eaten. This affects not only breath, but even skin odor. Chewing fresh parsley helps, but nothing completely removes this lingering smell. One new study suggests that yogurt may also help in getting rid of garlic breath. According to the study, higher protein and fat levels in yogurt can help neutralize the oils, but should be eaten relatively soon after eating garlic.

Garlic is a root vegetable that is available year-round and can be found fresh, pickled and dehydrated. Whole bulbs can be stored in an open container in a cool, dark place for up to eight weeks. Fresh garlic bulbs should be firm and dry. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep three to 10 days. Bulbs should be thrown out when soft or show signs of mold. Peeled cloves can be stored in vinegar in the refrigerator.

Garlic can turn blue or green when it is pickled because of an enzymatic reaction that takes place. This is harmless and the garlic is safe to use.

When dehydrated garlic is ground, it becomes garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice come from fresh pressed garlic cloves.

Garlic in oil is very popular, but homemade garlic in oil can cause botulism if not handled correctly. Unrefrigerated garlic in oil mixes can foster the growth of Clostridium botulinum bacteria, which produces poisons that do not affect the taste or smell of the oil. Spores of this bacteria are commonly found in soil and can be on fresh produce such as garlic. It is virtually impossible to eliminate all traces of miniscule soil particles on garlic heads. These botulinum spores found in soil are harmless when there is oxygen present. But when spore-containing garlic is bottled and covered with oil, an oxygen-free environment is created that promotes the growth of the spores and produces a toxin that can occur at 50 degrees Fahrenheit or above.

Symptoms of botulism poisoning include blurred or double vision, slurred speech, difficulty breathing and muscle weakness. Without prompt and correct treatment, one-third of those diagnosed with botulism may die.

To reduce the risk of botulism, the garlic in oil mixture should be refrigerated and used within four days. Garlic in oil should always be discarded after two hours at room temperature, even if salt and acids are present. Commercially prepared oils have added acids and other chemicals to eliminate the risk of botulism, but should still be handled carefully and correctly.

Even though it’s stinky, garlic provides great flavor to dishes. When recipes call for one clove of fresh garlic, Michigan State University Extension suggests the following substitutions:

  • 1 teaspoon chopped garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic, garlic flakes or garlic juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

For more information, visit MSU Extension's Nutrition website.

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