Updated: Aug 21, 2022
Garlic lovers poke fun at recipes that call for a single clove — but maybe there’s a reason for those stingy measurements
As the memes go, the proper way to measure garlic is with your heart. One clove is not enough for any recipe, unless it’s a recipe for “how to cook one clove of garlic,” in which case you should still use two. More extreme: When the recipe calls for one clove, use at least a head. Why? Because there is no such thing as too much garlic.
The love of garlic is nearly universal, as essential to the cuisine of Italy as it is to those of China, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico. But if the common sentiment in so many food-obsessed circles is that garlic, even more than salt, belongs in everything and in unlimited quantity, then why do so many recipes still call for such a stingy number of cloves? If a recipe is ostensibly a work of authority, intended to share one “right” way of making something, then how does one land on the “right” amount of garlic? Can there even be such a thing?
For a recipe developer who doesn’t know their audience’s preferences, calling for a scant quantity of garlic can be a way to play it safe. “Two cloves of garlic can help figure out a range if [readers] want to add more, but people don’t get mad at the amount you’re using,” says Ben Mims, a cooking columnist at the Los Angeles Times. It’s a small enough quantity that someone can feel empowered to skip it entirely, but present enough that someone else can choose to add six more cloves without feeling like they’ll ruin the dish, he explains.
How does one land on the “right” amount of garlic? Can there even be such a thing?
“Garlic is like the savoury equivalent to how I think a lot of people treat vanilla extract in baking,” says recipe developer Emma Laperruque, a cooking editor at Bon Appétit. “It makes everything better, but you don’t need a lot of it.” Limited to just five ingredients in Big Little Recipes, the cookbook she spun from her former Food52 column, Laperruque rarely added ingredients that offered only subtle accents. If garlic appeared in a “big little recipe,” it was prominent, as in garlic confit (three heads) or garlic broth (two big heads). Those kinds of recipes have been increasingly fun to explore, says Laperruque: “I think we’re in a wave of garlic not being an accent but a forefront player.”
For cookbook author and video host Carla Lalli Music, garlic’s magic number is at least six cloves. At one point while working on her second book, That Sounds So Good, “I realized that almost every recipe started with olive oil and six cloves of garlic,” Lalli Music says. That felt like an amount that wouldn’t “shock and alarm” readers but that also isn’t so minimal as to be unidentifiable, she explains. Aside from raw usages in which restraint helps to prevent garlic from overwhelming a dish, “I can’t think of another time that I would use literally one clove,” she says.
Not all of Lalli Music’s savoury recipes include garlic, but sometimes, skipping it is more an editorial choice than a gustatory one. Her training at Bon Appétit taught her that if a feature story had several recipes, each one needed a sense of differentiation. If lots of recipes leaned in the same oil-then-garlic direction, she might be inclined to skip the pairing in others. While readers might not even notice or dislike that repetition, “I’m anticipating that feedback and trying to head it off,” she explains.
Mims speculates that there may be a lingering idea in parts of American food media that “too much garlic” is still something to avoid. A mix of personal preferences and culinary history play into this bias. As Rax King wrote for MEL, it wasn’t that long ago that white Americans who weren’t coded as “ethnic” were sceptical about garlic, as its heavy usage in immigrant foods was at odds with their conception of “American food” as mildly scented and lightly flavoured.
What some recipe readers regard as garlic’s disappointing scarcity might also point to the limitations of the recipe as a form. Mims says his focus when developing recipes is to provide context, yet he has to condense it into as little space as possible. This can create a challenge when, for example, a recipe developer writes a recipe with the assumption that their reader will have potent fresh garlic at their disposal rather than the old, subdued heads that are the reality for the average home cook. “You want to tell people, ‘Hey, it really depends on the freshness of your garlic,’ but to do that with every single recipe and every single line becomes cumbersome and something there’s no space for,” Mims says.
Garlic-loving home cooks can benefit from knowing a recipe developer’s palate — a type of knowledge only formed from making one person’s recipes many times and seeing how their written preferences stack up to our own. While some home cooks might adhere strictly to recipes, Lalli Music assumes people are going to go their own way, making garlic measurements more like a gesture in a certain direction than a distinct point.
What seems to get lost in the garlic zealotry sometimes is the acceptance that other flavours can shine on their own, delicious and delicate without garlic or other heavy seasonings. Consider Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce. It contains three ingredients: tomatoes, butter, and onion. The recipe has five stars on NYT Cooking, based on over 9,000 reviews, with comments calling it “sublime” and “a revelation.” And yet, it is sometimes met with scepticism: a good pasta sauce with no garlic?
In her MEL piece, King considers garlic as a kind of crutch. “Over-reliance on garlic is an insecure cook’s move — it tells eaters that at least this meal won’t be flavourless like all those ‘simplified’ meals of decades past,” she writes. When she was a new cook, “strong, punchy flavours meant I was really cooking; subtler tastes were less attractive because it didn’t feel like I’d done anything to my ingredients,” she recalls.
Indeed, some cooks can conflate garlickiness with goodness. Mims summarizes this idea as: “This is a flavour I love, this is a flavour that makes a dish taste really good for me, I’m going to use a lot of it because I want to make sure it tastes good.” Some people double up garlic and spices when they’re trying to cut down on salt, he notes, so in this way, garlic becomes synonymous with flavour.
It’s hard not to see some of the garlic fervour as a sense of one-upping, like the early 2010s tendency to heap more and more bacon onto food. On TikTok, where audio about being a “garlic girl” went viral, creators creep increasingly cartoonish amounts of garlic into their food. But does that TikTok-famous soup really need 60 cloves, when 44 cloves already did the job and with less work? Aside from its power to inspire immediate awe, a hefty clove count might have another, unintended effect: “You might think you want more of this ingredient,” Mims says, “but really, your palate has dulled to how powerful it really is.”