Getting Comfy with Confit
No such thing as too much garlic
A few generations ago many North Americans considered garlic to be an “ethnic food”, one of those strong-smelling things that characterized “foreigners” and probably contributed to various inflamed passions and sin. The many cultures, even European, that made up the early Canadian mosaic brought with them plenty of garlic or other pungent ingredients, though they mostly had the good sense not to share them with people who disapproved. Being of the “garlic-eaters” was a mark of lower social class.
The joke was on them, of course.
Canadian and American soldiers who served in and around Italy came home from the war with a taste for garlic, and later waves of Italian immigration, much of it from the south, helped to popularize pizza and pasta. It’s hard to imagine our food landscape without them and garlic is one of the fundamental ingredients.
Garlic is part of the allium family, the group of vegetables that includes onions and leeks. Allicin, the sulphur compound responsible for raw garlic’s spicy pungency, is formed when the alliin and allinase compounds react - an interaction that occurs only when the cell walls are broken down (ie. when you cut it). You can use this reaction to your advantage because minced, crushed, and sliced garlic can impart quite different flavours to your dish. So how you handle your garlic is as important as whether you include it at all.
Garlic confit is the pinnacle of the bulb’s mellow potential. Slow cooking inactivates the allicin, leaving a sweet and beguiling flavour that’s hard to replicate. Roasting garlic provides similar effect, but loses out to confit in three areas: even cooking (warm oil bath vs. fluctuating oven temperatures), waste (you can never squeeze all your roasted garlic out of the skins) and confit’s side benefit of delicious garlic oil that can be used anywhere garlic is welcome.
And although you’re cooking with a lot of oil it’s not the same as deep frying. Frying occurs at around 325F/160C and up, whereas confit happens well below at around 200F/90C and even lower temperatures. If you’d prefer to do your confit in the oven instead of the stovetop that’s totally okay - I prefer to have it where I can keep an eye on it, but that’s up to you.
One caveat about garlic confit. Despite the origin of “confit” from the French verb confire (to preserve), it’s not a particularly good way to preserve garlic. Because garlic is a very low-acid vegetable it presents some risks of food poisoning, in particular the dreaded botulism that can thrive in the low-acid, low-air environment of your confit. Don’t let this dissuade you from trying it though - just make batches you can use in about a week and keep both the confit and leftover oil stored in the fridge. Keeping your hands and work surfaces clean ought to go without saying.
But trust me, once you make this you will have no trouble using it up.
Small heavy bottomed pot
Fresh garlic (3-4 heads)
Mild olive oil, or neutral oil of your choice
A few sprigs of woody-stemmed herbs like rosemary or thyme (optional)
Separate garlic cloves and peel. There are plenty of garlic peeling hacks on the internet but none of them ever work well for me so I just put on a good podcast and put my brain in neutral. My uncle grows fabulous garlic and this hardneck Spanish red variety has big fat cloves which makes peeling tolerable.
Trim the woody bits from the root ends of each clove.
Place garlic and herbs (if using) in the small pot and add oil until cloves are fully covered (Thyme not shown because I forgot.)
Place over medium heat until oil comes to a simmer.
Turn down the heat until there are a few bubbles here and there. Bathe in the garlicky aroma of your kitchen.
Allow garlic to bubble away for 45 minutes or so, or until the cloves are very soft and a gentle golden/tan colour.
Remove pot from heat and allow to cool. Strain garlic if using immediately, or store covered in oil in the fridge.
Your problem will not be how to use this up. Your problem will be finding the restraint to avoid putting it in and on everything. Add it to soups and pastas, stir it into dips and dressings, and if you’re a purist just spread it on toast with a sprinkle of salt and pepper.
While the many preservation techniques provide solutions to too much produce, sometimes the solution is right in front of you: find a way to eat more. Get comfy making confit and there will never be such thing as too much garlic.