UAlbany researcher made a career in garlic

Less is more when it comes to garlic

One of the most used spices in cooking the world over packs a pungent smell and taste meant as a defense against predators: garlic.

It is sulfur – and hundreds of chemical compounds — that makes garlic the miracle ingredient it is. As the plant changes under a multitude of conditions — crushed, heated, set in oil — the flavors and smells change in subtle and sometimes tasty ways. 

But it all traces to the garlic plant’s evolutionary need to protect itself.

“A plant obviously can’t run. A plant is fixed in place, it has to survive as best it can, and it survives by chemical warfare,” said Eric Block, a University at Albany chemist who has focused decades of work on the sulfur compounds in garlic and its botanical cousins like onions and leeks. 

Block, who plans to retire at the end of the school year after over 35 years at UAlbany, conducted his earliest research in basic sulfur compounds in the 1960s and 1970s, which led him deep into the world of garlic.

“It seemed like an interesting area to study both because of the fundamental chemistry but also because of the connection to food chemistry and … traditional medical use dating back to the beginning of recorded time,” he said. 


While Block concedes he is “not much of a cook,” he recommended a simple strategy for cooking with garlic: Less is more. Less is better. 

Since garlic’s flavor compounds are unstable and easily altered, Block suggested adding garlic later in the cooking process.

“Garlic is extremely potent,” he said. “The active ingredient is irritating and pungent. … It’s delightful in smaller amounts but in larger amounts it actually produces a painful response.”

Many of the compounds in garlic, including those primarily responsible for taste, are unstable, so the crushing, mincing and fine chopping called for in many recipes helps maximize flavor. But overheating those compounds unleashes less palatable flavors. 

Allicin — the compound primarily responsible for garlic’s smell and discovered at a Rensselaer pharmaceutical lab in the 1940s —  interacts with pain receptors in the mouth. That produces the powerful sensation associated with the ingredient.

“In your mouth you are responding very vigorously through these pain receptors to this highly irritating compound,” he said.

Garlic’s sulfur compounds continue to degrade and change with time and varied cooking conditions. Heat over low heat and you will produce one flavor; let garlic sit in oil and produce a different labor; change the type of oil and the flavors change further.  

“Different cooking techniques will result in bringing out different components, sometimes amplifying some components and diminishing others,” he said. “Each different technique can lead to a different sensation, a different taste and a different odor.”

Make your kitchen a lab

Block’s office sits in the back of his lab, whirling with equipment. Home cooks could benefit from thinking of their kitchens as labs, testing how small changes to a recipe change the overall dish. 

Block said experienced cooks test how different amounts of garlic change a recipe, while holding other ingredients even, looking for the amount “that is just right,” enhancing without dominating the dish. 

As long as the cook can reproduce the amount of garlic or the cooking method in the future, they can add it to the recipe box.

“Cooking is kind of an experimental science and you learn by doing it,” he said. “Be prepared to experiment a bit.”

Even though Block has studied garlic for over three decades and published the book “Garlic and other Alliums: The Lore and the Science,” he doesn’t have a sure-fire way for combating garlic breath. 

He suggested masking garlic smells with other strong smells from parsley, mint or other ingredients. You can brush your teeth or pop a piece of gum, but garlic breath doesn’t come from garlic leftovers in the mouth, rather it comes from digested garlic making its way back up from the gut – yet another odor from the changing sulfur compounds. 

“The human nose is sensitive to the tiniest amount of a sulfur compound… that there is really not easy way to remove every bit of it and you don’t need much to have stinky breath,” he said.

In food cultures that rely heavily on garlic, garlic breath is less of a problem, Block said, because everyone has it. And to some people the smell of garlic may even be an aphrodisiac.

“It just comes with the territory,” he said. “For some people it’s a turn on and other people hate it.”

3 things to try with garlic

  • Roast the whole thing: Take a whole head of garlic, cut off the top, drizzle with olive oil and roast in a 350-degree oven for 35 minutes or until soft. Spread on toast, slather on meat or mix into dip.
  • Puree with lemon or lime juice: If you are trying to mellow out the flavors and smells of your garlic, especially for a dip or sauce, trying blending a handful of cloves with the juice of a lemon or lime, strain and add to guacamole.
  • Find your perfect dressing: If you want to zero-in on just how much garlic you like in a dressing, make a simple vinaigrette but add slightly different amounts of garlic to get a taste for thew range of flavors from just noticeable to outright garlicky. 

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