James Beard Was Wrong. Garlic Powder Is Amazing.

What to eat. What not to eat.
Dec. 9 2013 10:01 AM

Garlic Powder Is Awesome

I missed out on years of enhanced flavor because of foodie prejudice against the dehydrated ingredient.

Garlic!
Garlic! Both kinds!

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock & Shutterstock.

Many foodies look down on garlic powder as a stale, cheap substitute for the real thing. It's a shortcut for lazy cooks, goes this reasoning, but not something a serious chef would consider.

I get the principle behind the sentiment—fresh is better than preserved, as a rule of thumb. But taking it as gospel in every case can approach sophomoric levels.

“After half a year at culinary school, a culinary school, mind you, where garlic was minced from fresh, cinnamon was ground from sticks, and nutmeg was grated from whole—always—I have been carefully trained to look upon garlic powder with great disdain,” wrote cookbook author S.J. Sebellin-Ross in a blog post for the Oregonian. “And it makes sense to me. Garlic powder and all it's [sic] many cousins (garlic salt, garlic paste, prepeeled garlic cloves) may be great for the busy cook, but they are not nearly the taste treat pure garlic clove is for the eater.” When skimming through a recipe book, she confided, if she sees garlic powder on the ingredient list, her response is “put the cookbook down and step away.”

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Nobody is disputing that fresh garlic is a wonderful, magical ingredient. I’ve been growing garlic since the 1990s, at a rate of about 400 bulbs per year, so I’m quite familiar with its charms. It’s a gustatory chameleon that’s at once spice and vegetable, with a variety of flavors to give. When fresh garlic is added to a dish early and allowed to cook, its raw bite is replaced by sweetness and mild, permeating pungency. If added at the end of cooking, that same fresh garlic contributes piercing fireworks.

But garlic powder acts like glue behind glitter, adding a subtle fullness of flavor that may be more difficult to detect, but nonetheless makes the meal taste better. Like MSG, garlic powder may not be specifically discernable, but in a side-by-side comparison, the otherwise identical dish with added garlic powder will win. I have found little reason not to sprinkle garlic powder on practically everything: chili, meat with oyster sauce, tuna fish salad, etc. I often find myself adding fresh garlic at both the beginning and end of meal prep, and sprinkling powder in the middle. The trick is never to add so much that someone could say, “I taste garlic powder.”

Chef Rob Connoley, who is putting Silver City, N.M., on the culinary map with his inventive, foraged meals at Curious Kumquat, helped unpack the difference between fresh and dried garlic, along with other spices, via Facebook chat:

All dried spices are different than their fresh counterparts. They're typically stronger in flavor and a bit off compared to what we're used to. So when I use them, sometimes its [sic] because I don't have access to the fresh ingredient and I adjust the amount to flavor, but often its because I'm looking for a more aggressive flavor in my dish. On my stove right now is the classic Indian dish aloo gobi. I have fresh turmeric in my pantry but I prefer the biting flavor of dried turmeric in this dish versus many soups that I make which I want the more mellow fresh version.

What goes for turmeric goes for garlic, too. And there are times when fresh garlic would burn easily—high-heat procedures like pan-blackening, for example—but garlic powder works fine. In dry rubs or seasoned flour, where fresh garlic would gum up the mixture, powder blends in easily. Garlic powder disperses more evenly in brine, and performs better in some savory baked goods. (Just don't add garlic powder at the end of cooking, as it needs time to absorb moisture.)

So why do so many cooks resist garlic powder? The prejudice is likely rooted in the opinions of many culinary elder statesmen and -women. Julia Child reportedly wasn’t a fan. James Beard, in his book Beard on Food: The Best Recipes and Kitchen Wisdom from the Dean of American Cooking, had this to say:

The honest flavor of fresh garlic is something I can never have enough of. On the other hand, should I be unfortunate enough to bite into something seasoned with garlic powder or salt, I find I can taste it for thirty-six hours. … I consider both garlic powder and salt and onion powder and salt to be among the more disagreeable of the so-called advances in our eating. To me, it is absolutely pointless to ruin good food with these awful ersatz flavors when it is so simple a matter to use the real thing.

Many modern-day foodies are similarly biased. Anthony Bourdain has been quoted as saying “garlic powder is not food.” (He’s also written “Too lazy to peel fresh? You don't deserve to eat garlic,” in his book Kitchen Confidential, but he was talking about jarred chopped garlic, which is justly reviled.) Hoping for elaboration on his revulsion of garlic powder, I reached out to Bourdain on Twitter. Alas, he didn’t get back to me. But some other food luminaries did share with me their feelings on the subject. Francis Lam, a food writer and food reality show judge, tweeted back, smartly: “awful substitute, possibly decent as its own thing.” Food writer, former Gourmet editor, and culinary icon Ruth Reichl was skeptical. “I don't really understand why you'd use an acrid industrial product when fresh garlic is so easily obtainable,” she tweeted. But Reichl’s tune changed when I explained that I grow my own garlic, and make my own garlic powder. To this, she replied, “Homemade garlic powder! That's an entirely different story. Sounds fantastic, actually. Just a dehydrator? I want to try it.”

Indeed, freshly made garlic powder is a different animal from the stale store-bought stuff. If you're not up for making your own from scratch, gourmet spice companies can ship you garlic powder that’s almost as fresh as homemade. I've also seen garlic powder for sale at farmers markets—crafty growers know that if you make garlic powder during harvest time, you can use the leaves too, with little noticeable change other than a greenish tint to the powder. To preserve its youth, you should store garlic powder in a cool, dry place, or even in the freezer.

If you are up for making your own from scratch, three good-sized heads of garlic will make about ⅓ cup of powder. Slice the cloves as thinly as possible and dehydrate them. If your dehydrator has a temperature control, set it at 125 degrees. When totally crispy but not browned, and with no soft pieces in the mix, let the pieces cool to room temperature. Pulverize them in a clean coffee grinder or spice grinder. Store in a salt shaker, and sprinkle on food midway through cooking, as MSG was tossed around Chinese restaurant kitchens in the 1970s. That is, on basically everything. 

This is a Web-only adaptation of Flash in the Pan, a nationally syndicated weekly food column by Ari LeVaux.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column that’s appeared in more than 50 newspapers in more than 24 states.

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