Garlic is a traditional seasoning. Fresh, minced or dried, this bulb is popular for food and medicinal uses. Dried, powdered garlic will last indefinitely if properly stored. Fresh garlic, such as minced or clove garlic, is best used within a short time. Garlic improperly stored or used can go bad and may be harmful.
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Garlic, onions, leeks, shallots and chives are part of the Allium plant family. Garlic has been cultivated for thousands of years. Garlic was widely used by ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians as food. Sanskrit medicinal records advised garlic as a remedy for several diseases. Folklore superstition says that garlic repels witches, vampires and werewolves. In recent centuries, garlic was believed to ward off cholera and smallpox. During World War I, British doctors used garlic as an antiseptic against gangrene.
Garlic today is primarily used as a culinary herb. The bulb is the main source of garlic. The bulb is harvested and dried as powder or added to other seasoning blends. The fresh bulb breaks down into cloves that can be minced, dried, chopped and granulated. Garlic stems and leaves are edible and have a mild flavor when chopped fresh into salads. Garlic flowers are both a garnishment and seasoning. The globe-shape head has hundreds of tiny flowers that carry a mild garlic flavor. They are tossed into soups, casseroles or meat dishes during cooking or added fresh to salads.
Types of garlic include whole garlic sold fresh or dried. Decorative garlic braids are made when garlic is harvested whole and several heads are woven together by the stems. Individual garlic heads are removed as needed for cooking. Frequently, garlic heads are sold fresh or dried in grocery or produce markets. Garlic powder is made when garlic cloves are dried and ground into powder or chopped into small flakes. Fresh cloves can be minced and sold in jars but must be refrigerated to prevent spoiling.
Garlic sold as powder or dried flakes is usually dehydrated. With the moisture removed, the garlic retains flavor for year-round storage. It is often commercially prepared with a freshness date on the jar or package. Fresh garlic grown at home or chosen at a market should be firm with no soft or spongy cloves. Inspect the outer skin. If dark or powder patches can be seen around the neck or under the skin, the garlic has mold. Do not use these heads, as the mold will quickly spoil or rot the garlic.
Garlic cloves are often used to flavor cooking or salad oil. Home blends of garlic in oil must be refrigerated and used within a few days. Raw garlic can develop bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. This produces a toxin that causes botulism. Untreated, botulism leads to serious illness and sometimes death. Proper storage and prompt use are important to enjoy the benefits and avoid the hazards of fresh garlic.