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What is the right amount of garlic in a recipe?

What is the right amount of garlic in a recipe?

As the memes say, the right way to measure garlic is with your heart. One clove isn’t enough for any recipe, unless it’s a “how to cook one garlic clove” recipe, in which case you still need to use two. More extreme: When the recipe calls for one clove, use at least one cup. Why? Because there is no such thing as too much garlic.

The love of garlic is almost universal, as essential to the cuisine of Italy as it is to that of China, the Philippines and Puerto Rico. But if the common feeling in so many food-obsessed circles is that garlic, even more than salt, belongs in everything and in unlimited quantities, then why do so many recipes still call for such a stingy amount of cloves? If a recipe is ostensibly an authoritative work, meant to share one “right” way to make something, how do you come up with the “right” amount of garlic? Can such a thing even exist?

For a recipe developer unfamiliar with their audience’s preferences, asking for a small amount of garlic might be one way to play it safe. “Two cloves of garlic can help determine a range if” [readers] want to add more, but people don’t get mad at the amount you use,” says Ben Mims, cooking columnist at the Los Angeles Times. It’s an amount small enough that one can feel empowered to skip it altogether, but it’s present enough that someone else can choose to add six more cloves without feeling like they’re ruining the dish, he explains.

“Garlic is like the savory equivalent of how I think a lot of people treat vanilla extract when baking,” says recipe developer Emma Laperruque, a cooking editor at Enjoy your dinner. “It makes everything better, but you don’t need a lot of it.” Limited to just five ingredients in Big Small Recipes, the cookbook she spun out of her former Food52 column, Laperruque rarely added ingredients that offered only subtle accents. When garlic appeared in a “big little recipe,” it was prominent, as in candied garlic (three heads) or garlic stock (two large heads). Those kinds of recipes are getting more fun to explore, says Laperruque: “I think we’re in a garlic wave, not an accent, but a precursor.”

For cookbook author and video host Carla Lalli Music, the magic number of garlic is at least six cloves. At one point, while she was working on her second book, That sounds so good“I realized that almost every recipe started with olive oil and six cloves of garlic,” says Lalli Music. That felt like an amount that wouldn’t “shock and alarm” readers, but it’s also not so minimal as to be unidentifiable, she explains. Aside from raw use where restraint helps keep garlic from overpowering a dish, “I can’t think of another time I’d use literally one clove,” she says.

Not all Lalli Music savory recipes contain garlic, but sometimes it’s more of an editorial choice than a flavor choice. Her education at Enjoy your dinner taught her that if a main story had multiple recipes, each needed a sense of differentiation. If many recipes leaned in the same oil-than-garlic direction, she might be tempted to skip the combination in others. While readers may not even notice or like that repetition, “I anticipate that feedback and try to avert it,” she explains.

Mims speculates that there may be a lingering idea in parts of US 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 MELit wasn’t long ago that white Americans not coded as “ethnic” were skeptical of garlic, as its heavy use in immigrant food was at odds with their concept of “American food” as mildly perfumed and lightly flavored.

What some recipe readers regard as the disappointing scarcity of garlic may also point to the recipe’s limitations as a form. Mims says his focus in developing recipes is to provide context, but to summarize it in as little space as possible. This can pose a challenge when, for example, a recipe developer writes a recipe under the assumption that his reader will have potent fresh garlic at his disposal instead of the old, understated 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 recipe and every line becomes cumbersome and something that there’s no room for,” says Mims.

Garlic-loving home cooks can benefit from knowing a recipe developer’s taste—a kind of knowledge formed only by making one person’s recipes many times and seeing how their written preferences compare to ours. While some home cooks may stick strictly to recipes, Lalli Music assumes that people will go their own way, making garlic measurements more of a gesture in a certain direction than an obvious point.

What sometimes seems to get lost in the garlic fervor is the acceptance that other flavors can shine on their own, delicious and delicate without garlic or other heavy seasonings. Think of Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce. It contains three ingredients: tomatoes, butter and onion. The recipe has five stars on NYT Cooking, based on more than 9,000 reviews, with comments calling it “sublime” and “a revelation.” And yet people sometimes encounter skepticism: a good pasta sauce without garlic?

In her MEL piece, King views garlic as a kind of stool. “Too much reliance on garlic is an insecure cook’s move — it tells eaters that at least this meal won’t be tasteless like all those ‘simplified’ meals of the past few decades,” she writes. When she was a new cook, “strong, spicy flavors meant I was really cooking; subtler flavors were less appealing because I didn’t feel like I had done anything to my ingredients,” she recalls.

Indeed, some cooks may confuse garlic with goodness. Mims sums up this idea as, “This is a flavor I love. This is a flavor that really makes a dish for me. I’m going to use a lot of it because I want to make sure it tastes good.” Some people double down on garlic and spices when trying to cut back on salt, he notes, so garlic becomes synonymous with flavor this way.

It’s hard not to see some of the garlic fervor as a sense of one-upping, such as the early 2010 tendency to pile more and more bacon on food. On TikTok, where audio about being a “garlic girlwent viral, makers are sneaking more and more cartoonish amounts of garlic into their food. But does that? TikTok famous soup really need 60 cloves, when? 44 cloves have already done the job and with less work? Aside from its power to instantly inspire awe, a hefty clove count can have another, unintended effect: “You might think you want more of this ingredient,” says Mims, “but really, your palate is dulled to how potent it really is.”

Caroline Figel is a freelance illustrator and animator.