The clove in the picture above came from a regular-sized garlic ‘bulb’. The other cloves in the bulb were small to medium-sized. When you follow a recipe calling for a clove of garlic how big should that clove be? And does it matter?
A regular garlic clove is roughly the size of an adult fingernail. Ha! What a can of worms: the nail of the little finger or the thumb, and a fingernail on a slender hand or that on a big hand? There is no guide. Would it be more accurate to measure crushed garlic in a spoon? How many cloves would you need to peel if a recipe calls for 1 teaspoon (or tablespoon) of crushed garlic? That’s a fiddle, too.
When garlic is fresh (December-January in New Zealand) adding a little more won’t make that much difference but as it ages it becomes more pungent. It is strongest used raw and can be quite sharp and biting to taste; it can also increase the heat of a dish with its pungency. Garlic mellows during cooking – the longer you cook it, the milder it becomes. For example, the classic recipe for Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic. Most cooks attempting this French dish for the first time cut the quantity of garlic down by at least half, thinking it is an exaggeration, the French are mad, and the perfect result can be achieved by using much less garlic. But it’s a wonderful dish when made with 3-4 bulbs of garlic, nose-tinglingly aromatic, with layers of flavour, and at the end of cooking the garlic cloves squish to a creamy purée. It definitely does not burn your taste buds.
To sum up, if using new-season garlic, an extra clove or two, or large clove, won’t unhinge the dish.
If using garlic raw be aware it can make a dish hotter by adding a spicy bite.
When garlic is crushed, a chemical reaction takes place as the cells are broken down. Crushed paste or juice is very potent. It’s also when it is at its health-giving best. If you want less of a hot bite from garlic, chop it, or if you prefer a milder flavour still, slice it.
If making a slow-cooked dish, you can be generous as the potency will be cooked out.
Whatever you do, avoid imported ‘bleached’ (suspiciously white garlic) that has been trimmed at the roots. (New Zealand-grown garlic retains the hairy root.) When our garlic is out of season (mid to late winter until late spring), opt for Californian garlic. Check labelling. No labelling on the produce? DEMAND it!