Garlic is one of my absolute favorite ingredients to work with. I’m a big fan of spicy foods, but constantly using hot sauces and chili peppers can make your dish taste more Mexican, Indian, South American, etc. than you’d like. Sometimes you just need a kick without changing the flavor profile so much. Enter: garlic. (Also good: fresh-cracked black pepper, horseradish, and red pepper flakes, all of which you can find in my kitchen on any given day.)
Garlic can be tough to keep on hand though. It spoils more quickly than you can use it, it’s a pain in the ass to peel and chop (when I’m not in need of whole cloves, I press the flat side of a kitchen knife down onto the garlic clove on a cutting board and the peel comes right off), and it’s very finicky about the temperature you keep it at. Sure, it’s easy enough to grab a jar of shelf-stable minced or chopped garlic from the grocery store, but I take issue with this for two reasons: 1) it’s swimming in oil, which changes the flavor of both the garlic and the food you put it in, and 2) fresh, raw garlic has an incredibly different taste than store-bought prepared garlic. Also, I will ALWAYS choose fresh ingredients over convenience. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Granted, garlic rarely goes bad in my house since Mike and I both love it and put it in/on everything (hot tip: spruce up your frozen cheese pizza with a little freshly chopped garlic and basil. And P.S., I started doing this well before the feature in the latest Real Simple), but I’m always on the lookout for new things to can and have been trying to pay special attention lately to ingredients that people will use. My Chinese plum sauce is delicious, but how many of you will actually cook up the Mu Shu Pork recipe I’ll be attaching to it in your Christmas basket? And how many of you will actually use a jar of garlic? Hence, pickled garlic.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I didn’t opt to can chopped garlic in oil like they stock in the grocery store. As I mentioned earlier, oil changes the flavor of the garlic, as does chopping it up before you use it. Keeping the garlic cloves whole reserves that strong, spicy flavor we all love, and pickling it with a vinegar-based solution changes the flavor without absorbing it, which it what oil does. Also, it’s not safe to can anything in oil at home. We regular Janes (and perhaps some Johns) don’t have the equipment to bring these products to safe temperatures, and even the grocery store garlic-in-oil products won’t keep nearly as long as a pickled product.
I actually bought my sleeve of garlic heads at Costco. Might seem weird, but Costco has pretty nice produce, if you can’t wait for the Farmer’s Market or get to a local produce stand. Since they buy in bulk, they get great prices and the highest chance of getting a quality product. It’s just math really – the more apples you buy, the higher the good:bad apple ratio will be. Truth be told, the reason I bought garlic at Costco this time was because we needed garlic and I really didn’t want to go to Safeway. I’m a Trader Joe’s/Sprouts kind of girl who gets her produce delivered from a CSA and buys meats at Mexican markets, so I generally avoid Safeway and Lucky’s anyways. Plus, I knew if I bought all that garlic I’d have to find some way to ensure I used it all, every last clove. So I started the process of finding a pickled garlic recipe.
Naturally I first turned to my two cookbooks on canning, because if it’s published, it’s legit. Maybe you read that sarcastically, but I’m 100% serious. Recipes in published cookbooks are tried and true, whereas anyone can publish on the internet (including me!). I was surprised that neither cookbook had a recipe. So I hit the internet. Hard. When I look for a recipe, I don’t just settle on one. I read about a dozen to make sure I understand the “why” of each ingredient and step in the process. This isn’t just me being a neurotic Type-A, it’s incredibly important to understand the effects of everything involved if you want to tinker with the recipe even a little bit, a lesson I learned when I first got into baking and have since applied to everything I do in the kitchen. If you don’t have Kosher salt and want to use table salt instead, you need to know how it’s going to change the final product so you can adjust cooking times and quantities of other ingredients. After some research (I just Google-ate “pickled garlic” and go from there, knowing the URLs that I trust based on experience: allrecipes.com, foodinjars.com, etc.) and math to adjust for the actual amount of garlic I had, I settled on a plan of attack.
Step One: Prepare cans for water bath canning
Guys, this is easy. Unscrew the lids and put just the cans in a large pot, making sure there is at least one inch of water covering them, and boil. All this is doing is sterilizing the cans. Once the water comes to a boil, keep the cans in there for, you know, awhile. I usually let them boil for at least 10-15 minutes. The longer the safer, which is why this is the first step. Put the lids in a bowl and set them aside. You don’t need to do anything with the can rings yet.
Step Two: Separate the cloves and peel the garlic
Can you say tedious??? Don’t worry, I found a few tricks. I used this YouTube video that a buddy posted on Facebook recently (thanks Rick!) to start with: How to Peel a Head of Garlic in 10 Seconds Separating the cloves was easy enough with this method, but the shake-the-Dickens-out-of-the-cloves-between-two-bowls part was not very successful. It worked for about half of the cloves in each round, but it was a noisy, awkward process, even after trying two different sets of bowls. Still, this method at least helped loosen the skin so I could manually peel the garlic faster. So I sat down in front of the ALCS game and peeled 8 cups of garlic cloves. It took me over an hour. Thank God for October baseball.
Step Three: Start boiling your pickling brine
I opted for a simple brine, 3 cups white vinegar, 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, 1/4 salt (Kosher salt is best). I had to do some serious math to get the quantities right here. I knew I had 8 cups of garlic cloves, which would fill 8 1/2 pint jars. But how much liquid would I need? I filled one of my 1/2 pint jars with the garlic, then covered it with water, and poured the water out into a measuring cup. Turns out you need about 1/2 cup of liquid in each 1/2 pint jar. I had 8 1/2 pint jars to fill, so that meant 4 cups of liquid in total.
Throw that in a pot on medium-low heat. Now you’ll add your pickling spice, which is a base of black and/or yellow mustard seeds, peppercorns, and dill seeds, with any of these additional spices you have on hand: allspice berries (crushed), whole cloves, dried red chile, cinnamon stick, nutmeg, bay leaves, coriander seeds, cardamom pods (crushed), star anise (crushed). Now why would one have these crazy spices on hand? If you’re a new cook looking for ways to make cooking easier, one of the best pieces of advice I can give is to always have lots of spices in your pantry. They keep for a long time and you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you actually DO have that Indian celery seed your recipe calls for. Not surprisingly, I don’t purchase spices at Safeway. Take the time to hit up Sprouts, where they sell lots of spices in bulk, so you can just grab and pay for what you’ll need.
When I’m adding spices to a brine, I don’t usually measure. If you need measurements to function in the kitchen, which I know many people do, add no more than 1 tsp of spice per cup of liquid. So for the 4-cup brine I made, all my spices combined totalled only about 4 tsp, with the majority of that being the main 3 spices (maybe 1 tsp of each of those and a pinch of 3 others). Once you’ve added the pickling spice, let the brine simmer on medium-low for 15-20 minutes. It will start to turn a brownish color and smell delicious.
Step Four: Can it all up
Once your jars are sterile, pull them out using a jar lifter (I do NOT recommend trying to use regular kitchen tongs or anything but a traditional jar lifter for this) and put them on a towel. Empty the hot water from one or two of the jars into the bowl with the lids, to sterilize them. Using a jar funnel (not necessary, but very helpful in reducing the mess), fill each jar with garlic cloves. I also added some chopped bell peppers. Really stuff the cloves in there, they can handle it, but leave 1/4 inch head space at the top. Then, ladle the brine into the jars, making sure you still have that 1/4 inch head space at the top. Wipe the edges of the jars with a clean, damp towel. Resist the temptation to “go green” and use a cloth towel here. Nothing is ever as sterile as a clean paper towel. And you can always toss it in your compost bin after, so you’re still green. (Hot tip: always dry your dishes with paper towels, not cloth. It’s the most hygienic.) Pour the water from the lid bowls back into the canning pot and fit the lids and rings onto each jar. Put the full jars back into the canning pot, making sure they are covered with at least inch of water, and boil for 20-30 minutes. Remove the jars and put them on a towel out of the way. Do not touch them for at least 12 hours. After about an hour, check each lid to make sure it has sealed. You should not be able to press down on it and hear a clicking noise. Best to let the garlic sit for at least a week before using it. Store in a cool, dry place, such as a basement, in the meantime. Once opened, refrigerate.
Voila! Pickled garlic. Canning really is quite simple, albeit time-consuming since you have to wait of water boil several times over. But it’s so satisfying to walk down the aisles of a grocery store and not put jam, garlic, or tomato sauce in my cart, because I stock them in my very own basement.
I doubt I’ll get too many of you to jump on my canning bandwagon, but just keep this in mind the next time you go grocery shopping: you can make that same product with fresher ingredients, for less money, and it will keep its flavor longer than any store-bought item full of preservatives. Eating healthy should start from the ground up, doing as much as you can from scratch with fresh ingredients. Ask my boyfriend, close friends, family, or personal trainer – I do not diet, I eat whatever I want without guilt, and I never skimp on the butter. My eating healthy strategy is why buy it when I can make it? If I want a sweetie at night, I can go to the closest store and buy a package of processed cookies, or I can whip up a batch of Snickerdoodles in 20 minutes using all-natural ingredients, while also saving myself $5. Controlling what goes into your food is the easiest way make healthy-eating stress-free. So what are you going to make for dinner tonight?