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In defense of garlic powder

by Ari LeVaux

Many foodies look down their noses at garlic powder – and its cousin, granulated garlic – as a stale, cheap substitute for the real thing, a shortcut for lazy cooks, but not something the serious chef would consider. Julia Child helped set this tone when she wrote that garlic powder is “spurned, scorned despised and abominated among cooks in the know.” The case for garlic powder hasn’t been helped by the repeated quoting of Anthony Bourdain, by the online garlic powder-hating community, as saying “Too lazy to peel fresh? You don’t deserve to eat garlic.”

I’ve been growing my own garlic for years. So I can assure you that my respect for garlic powder is not borne of laziness. But it turns out Bourdain wasn’t referring to garlic powder users like me, anyway. The quote, from his book Kitchen Confidential, was taken out of context, as you can see from the sentence that precedes it: “Avoid at all costs that vile spew you see rotting in oil in screw-top jars.”

I couldn’t agree more with Bourdain about the pre-chopped garlic sold in jars. That garlic, billed as a convenient substitute for fresh garlic, can’t compare. Pre-chopped garlic has lost its fresh bite. Its clean, piercing flavor is replaced by a pungent, sulfuriness that pales in comparison to fresh garlic. But unlike the pre-chopped garlic that is so rightly despised, garlic powder shouldn’t be considered a substitute.

I reached out to the esteemed muncher of warthog anus via Twitter, hoping for clarification of his feelings on garlic powder. Alas, he didn’t get back to me. Some other food luminaries, however, did share their feelings with me on the subject.

Food writer, editor and all-around icon Ruth Reichl Tweeted back, professing open-minded confusion on the garlic powder issue, “I don’t really understand why you’d use an acrid industrial product when fresh garlic is so easily obtainable.”

I tweeted back that I grow my own, and make my own garlic powder, she responded: “Homemade garlic powder! That’s an entirely different story. Sounds fantastic, actually. Just a dehydrator? I want to try it.”

If you consider garlic powder as its own ingredient and not a substitute, the importance of freshness can be applied to it as well. Fresh garlic powder is indeed a different animal than stale garlic powder. To preserve its youth, large quantities should be stored in a cool, dry place, or even frozen, which you can’t do with fresh garlic. Perhaps in Julia’s time, fresh garlic powder was less available. Now with gourmet spice companies, which may soon be delivering their wares by drone, we have access to fresh spices like garlic powder. 

As for Julia, although she may in fact hate garlic powder, she’s earned the benefit of the doubt. Especially when taken literally, her quote states a fact that I actually agree with: garlic is indeed scorned and despised by many cooks. Francis Lam, a food writer and food reality show judge, summed it up the best in my opinion, Tweeting back: “awful substitute, possibly decent as its own thing.”

It’s important to remember here that garlic is a chameleon of the ingredient world. Even with fresh garlic, when it’s added to a meal, it makes a huge difference in the effect it has. Added early and allowed to cook, the bite of fresh garlic is replaced by sweetness and mild pungency. If added at the end of cooking, raw garlic contributes piercing fireworks. I often add fresh garlic at both the beginning and end, and sprinkle on the powdered garlic in the middle.

Unlike the dominating flavor of fresh garlic, powder is more of a behind-the-scenes ingredient, adding a subtle fullness of flavor that may be more difficult to detect than with fresh, but nonetheless making the meal taste better. I consider garlic powder like a (somewhat) less controversial version of MSG. Perhaps you can’t detect it specifically, but in a side-by-side comparison, the otherwise identical dish with added garlic powder will win.

Put another way, I don’t care how much fresh garlic you use. If you add garlic powder, it’s going to be better. And there are, in fact, times when garlic powder can be added when fresh garlic would be risky. Some high-heat applications, for example, where fresh garlic would burn, adding powder is safer. As a component of a dry rub or breading, meanwhile, fresh garlic would gum up the mixture, and won’t spread as evenly as powder. Garlic powder disperses more evenly in a brine, or a savory baked good. Just don’t add it at the end of cooking, as it needs time to absorb moisture.

It may be true, as Ruth suggests, that store-bought garlic powder is acrid. This hasn’t been the case with the high-end granulated garlic that I’ve bought at my local coop, and certainly not with the stuff I make at home. And if you grow your own, like I do, turning it into powder can be a great way to preserve it when your bulbs begin to get soft, with little green sprouts inside. Three good-sized heads will make about a third of a cup of garlic powder.

Simply slice the soft, sprouting cloves as thinly as possible and dehydrate them at 125 degrees. When totally crispy, with no soft pieces in the mix, pulverize the pieces in a clean coffee grinder or spice grinder. Store in a salt shaker.

It’s tempting to call the dissing of garlic powder a sophomoric response by inexperienced cooks who have recently discovered the generally true advantages of fresh ingredients versus preserved, like one internet powder-hater who posted: “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.”

But rather than pointing fingers or judging, the controversy can be easily cleared up with a simple exercise. First, repeat after me: “It’s not a substitute.” Then, cook your favorite garlic-containing dish, and add some garlic powder midway through the process, and see what happens. You won’t be disappointed.