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The garlic press controversy

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

"the reason that the garlic press has gotten such a bad rap is because most of the garlic presses out there are really, really shitty." Priya Krishna

"Garlic presses are utterly useless." Elizabeth David

I confess I am a user of the garlic press. In fact I have two - the two shown above. The one on the left is vintage, acquired via my husband and his youthful flat sharing with his sister in London. Somehow or other he acquired the garlic press and it was passed on to me. Goodness knows how old it is. I use it for the garlic I put in my salad dressing because the holes are very small, so the garlic that comes out is very fine. It also does not leave much residue behind.

The other is from Aldi I think and has bigger holes, but little poky bits that fit in the holes, and that, you would think, would push more through. Not so. It actually retains a lot on the poky bits. Which I then scrape off and have another go at pushing through. Bits also escape up the sides. So it's a bit more of a pain to use, but the holes are larger, indeed the whole thing is larger, so if I am crushing a lot of garlic I tend to use this. It's marginally easier to clean too.

But I always feel guilty about using them - I think I got this from Elizabeth David, whose article with the title shown at the top of the page, is very derogatory. Or maybe somehow I acquired the guilt by watching so many cooking shows and reading so many cookbooks. Somehow you just know, don't you, that you shouldn't use one? In fact I do remember revealing to one of my co-teachers that I used a garlic press. She was appalled, although I stuck to my guns and persuaded her to try one, and she did admit afterwards that it was pretty good.

The criticism though is vehement is it not? Here is more from Elizabeth David's article.

"I regard garlic presses as both ridiculous and pathetic, their effect being precisely the reverse of what people who buy them believe will be the case. Squeezing the juice of out of the garlic doesn't reduce its potency; it concentrates and intensifies the smell. I have often wondered how it is that people have once used one of these diabolical instruments don't notice this and forthwith throw the thing into the dustbin. Perhaps they do but won't admit it ...

"As a one-time kitchen-shop owner who in the past has frequently, and usually vainly, attempted to dissuade a customer from buying a garlic press, I am of course aware that advice not to buy a gadget which someone has resolved to waste their money on is usually resented as bossy, ignorant, and interfering." Elizabeth David

I actually noted from this that she is actually a bit of a hypocrite as she seems to have actually stocked them in her shop, although one article I read said that she refused to stock them. Maybe she did to begin with and was so appalled that she withdrew it. Her shop was not a success by the way.

But for the extreme condemnation try Anthony Bourdain.

“Sliver it for pasta, like you saw in Goodfellas; don’t burn it. Smash it, with the flat of your knife blade if you like, but don’t put it through a press. I don’t know what that junk is that squeezes out the end of those things, but it ain’t garlic.” Anthony Bourdain

Others call them the Devil's work, but then the Devil has long been associated with garlic has he not?

"There is a legend that when the Devil left the Garden of Eden after the fall of Adam and Eve, garlic sprang fom the left hoof-print, onions from the right. And of course, we all know it keeps the vampires away."

Emily Timberlake, however, wrote in defence of the garlic press in Taste and I was cheered to see that part of her defence was that it was all very well for these famous chefs to condemn the garlic press, but (a) they were much more skilful with the knife than ordinary mortals like me - my knife skills are very rudimentary, (b) they had a team of minions to do the chopping anyway and (c) they also have much more refined palettes.

The other day, whilst watching a Jamie video I noticed that he used a microplane - one of those graters that some fancy restaurants use when they grate Parmesan over your spaghetti. So I gave it a try and it did work - well until you got down to the last piece of the garlic which you just have to discard if you want to save your fingers. The person whose hand is shown here, looks as if they are in danger of grating their thumb too. It was therefore interesting to watch, this admittedly old Jamie video in which he demonstrates the different ways of dealing with garlic.

It's a good video, but honestly I just cannot chop or slice like him. It reminded me of that lovely scene in Julie and Julia where Julia Child is trying to master slicing onions and ends up with an absolute mountain of them, because it took the mountain to achieve the mastery. (And by the way, Julia Child liked using the garlic press.) Even one of my gourmet friends remarked how slow I was at cutting onions. Well slicing garlic as thin as Jamie is beyond my level of competence, and I am not going to get out my mandoline to do it. A garlic clove is just not big enough to warrant the washing up.

"Knife Skills is the hardest class in culinary school, and unless you work with a knife day in and day out, chances are your slicing and dicing are average." Dawn Perry - Bon Appétit


As for the chopping, well I guess if I did it for long enough I could manage that. It's a pretty good Jamie video though and he does talk about how each method varies the taste - but again for me, and maybe you, I probably wouldn't notice the difference. And note - he doesn't mention a pestle and mortar or a garlic press, or a microplane either, come to that. That must have been something he discovered later in life. I saw one comment from a Thai cook that noted in Asian cookery anyway, you are usually combining the garlic with other spices, so a pestle and mortar is best. Just do the whole lot at once. Serious Eats has an article The best way to mince garlic by Daniel Gritzer which includes more methods than Jamie and which also includes tasting notes and pictures.

Even though I do have deplorably undiscriminating taste buds - if it tastes good that's good enough for me, I don't have to recognise every ingredient - I suspect the real truth about the argument, at least here in Australia has to do with the quality of the garlic itself.

I have several photographs similar to this one taken in Nyons in the south of France, of the absolutely beautiful fresh garlic that you can get over there. It's one of the first things we buy when we get there. Available in your local hypermarket there too, not just the markets. And actually this lot is not as fresh as some. It's a little bit dried. And you can get it in England too apparently - well it comes from France. Nigel Slater waxes lyrical about it:

"its skin a soft green, brushed with anything from the faintest pink to the deepest mauve ... the bulbs are fat and pale and the smell is at first barely detectable. At home, I peel back the waxy skin and pull out the slippery white cloves. Each one has its own thick skin, still wet and pliable. Tucked inside are the sweetest, juiciest nuggets of garlic. So firm and crisp I want to eat them like slices of new season's apples. ....This is the sweet, mild garlic of romance."

It's very seasonal though and to get the same thing here you would have to grow your own, although you can now get Australian garlic and I do try to always buy this, not just because I'm patriotic, but I do actually believe it's better. Spanish is OK, Mexican less so and I try to avoid the Chinese. But why doesn't somebody jump on the bandwagon and produce fresh new garlic. Maybe farmers' markets.

The last thing I found to say is that all those more hands on ways of dealing with garlic will also leave you with garlic soaked and smelling chopping boards and hands, which is another argument against the hands on methods.

Another hands off way I guess - well almost - is to roast your garlic - either completely whole or a bulb cut in half. Then you squeeze the garlic out when it's soft and swee and stir it into your sauce or gravy. I also saw some people say that they chopped a lot at once and then froze it in ice cube trays. Now that seems fraught with disaster to me. I think I would forget it was there.

I adore garlic. When I used to arrive in France and smelt the first waft of garlic and gaulloise in the metro I knew that I was indeed in France.

“It is no exaggeration to say that peace and happiness start, geographically, where garlic is being used in preparation of food” Marcel Boulestin

I am never without it and probably overuse it. I mean most recipes for vinaigrette do not include garlic, but I learnt in the Loire valley how to make it and they included garlic - albeit chopped very finely. Much finer than I can manage.

There are masses of things you can do with garlic, even very simple little things. Here are just a few of the very quick things, beginning with garlic bread. The picture is of Nigel Slater's Parmesan garlic bread - now I thought I was generous with the amount of garlic butter I put between each slice! So yummy.

  • Garlic pizza from Stephanie Alexander - Scatter a mixture of chopped garlic and chopped flat-leaf parsley over thin, oiled pizza dough. Drizzle with cream or crème fraiche and bake in a hot oven until crisp and golden. I really must try this.

  • Add a whole clove to oil and warm gently, then leave until cool and use this infused oil to cook vegetables, especially potatoes, or brush on meat.

  • Poke slivers of garlic into roasts of pork or lamb along with some herbs as well

  • Greek roast potatoes, just have to have large amounts of garlic squeezed into the oil, lemon juice, water and dried oregano the potatoes are cooked in.

I feel a bit that I have just copied what better people than I have already said in this piece. Everyone quotes Anthony Bourdain, and to a lesser extent Elizabeth David, but I do think that Jamie video is useful and I do hope I have reassured others who use a garlic press like me. You just have to buy a good one it seems - the thinking out there seems to be Zyliss or Oxo - which is the one on the left here. It looks a bit like my Aldi one, and I think I tried the Zyliss one once and was not impressed.

But if you have been a bit snobby about them in the past, why not give one a go, because:

"A garlic press is quick, efficient, and doesn’t take up a lot of space.” Deb Perelman


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