This is a flavor foundation. It’s a way of cooking aromatic vegetables in order to give them deeply complex flavors that dissolve easily into any dish, eliminating forever the feeling that something is “missing” from the foods you’ve prepared.
True deliciousness comes from simple ingredients like garlic and onions, not luxury-larder fare like truffles and single-estate olive oil.
All you need is a way to prepare these vegetables that’s completely effortless so you’ll use them without hesitation.
Maintaining a very gentle simmer: That’s the whole technique for making garlic confit.
You’ll poach the garlic in oil until each clove is tender enough to be mashed into a paste, which is most often how you’ll use it.
Garlic makes an ideal flavor foundation, because the sulphureous compounds which give the raw cloves their pungency transform over time into complex sugars.
You won’t allow the cloves to brown. Although caramelization is delicious in its own right, it’s actually less complexly flavored than what immediately precedes it.
The ability of garlic to be made subtle as well as complex is why garlic confit is so valuable. You can use it to enrich whatever you want without imparting any conspicuously garlic flavor.
When you do want the flavor of garlic, you can layer it in with as much confit as you wish, producing an orgiastic garlic experience that’s impossible to achieve with raw cloves alone.
If you keep a Basic Inventory, you’ll already have what you need:
You’ll also need these Basic Tools:
The kitchen is a hazardous workplace with sharp knives and scalding oil.
That way, you won’t be reaching for the trash every other minute.
Use it as well to keep your workspace tidy.
You can make as much confit as you’ll use within four months.
However, you probably won’t know how much this is if you’re just starting out with flavor foundations, in which case I suggest making garlic confit for the first time in a small batch.
The four-months that I just mentioned isn’t exactly arbitrary. It’s the amount time that you can keep garlic confit in your freezer before its flavor begins to deteriorate.
The freezer is where you’ll keep most of what you make, pulling out one batch at a time as often as you need. This is because garlic confit lasts only four days in the fridge.
And that four-day limit is definitely not arbitrary.
It’s the maximum amount of time that you can safely store non-acidic foods in an oxygen-deprived environment at refrigerator temperatures, according to numerous health officials, food-safety experts and university agricultural departments. I’ll explain.
Botulism: you may have heard of it. It’s a paralytic illness caused by a nerve toxin released into your food when the spores of a bacteria, C. botulinum, germinate.
The bacteria was first identified in 1895 when three Belgian villagers wound up dead after sharing an improperly cured ham. Before that, its symptoms had been known throughout Germany as “sausage poisoning.” (“Botulism” comes from the Latin for sausage, botulus.)
Botulin is a ubiquitous bacteria. It’s common in topsoil, where it decomposes organic matter, perpetuating the cycle of life. From here it ends up on your fruits and vegetables. You consume it all the time without even noticing.
Problems occur only when you put your food into oxygen-starved environments, as when you seal them in airtight jars, or pack them beneath sausage casings, or submerge them beneath dense and airless cooking oils.
Botulin thrives in such conditions, where it reproduces exponentially while excreting a toxic byproduct as it feeds. The only way to destroy the bacterial spores, once you’ve sealed them up, is to cook your food for several minutes at a temperature much higher than boiling water.
That’s why Grandma pressure-canned her green beans. As long as the canning jar held its seal, no contaminating agent could enter and everything would be fine.
But why even take that chance, right? You see now why Grandma had that funny habit of boiling the hell out of all of her vegetables. The temperature of boiling water is enough to deactivate the bacteria’s toxin.
Botulin doesn’t thrive at all in acidic environments, which is why she never bothered to pressure-cook her raspberry jam.
Garlic isn’t acidic like raspberry jam, however. It is alkaline like green beans. When you poach garlic in oil at temperatures far below what kills botulin—which is what we do since it produces the most delicious results—you set the stage for the bacteria’s inevitable renascence.
That’s easily prevented, however, by putting your garlic confit in the fridge or freezer and using-or-losing it within four days. Cold temperature inhibits the growth of all kinds of microorganisms. It’s how we can enjoy herb-infused oils, sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil, pesto, and even sausage for that matter.
Like many things in life—like driving a car, for example—preparing and storing food is something you can do safely and routinely as long as you have a firm grasp of the facts.
Obviously, facts are something that food writers take very seriously. Recipe writing is all about “science,” these days. And yet, something inhibits them from verifying their sources.
The foodie and recipe-writer peanut gallery on the Internet, for example: Where they get their recommendations for storage time is anyone’s guess. I’ve seen ten days given as a safe interval for refrigerating garlic confit, I’ve seen two weeks.
A famous restaurateur writing in one of my hefty chefbooks recommends even letting garlic confit sit in the back of your fridge for a whole month.
To be fair to Monsieur le Chef, the refrigerator he has at his disposal is a walk-in, a large, insulated chamber with heavy plastic flaps that stand in place to prevent cold air from escaping. It holds a very stable temperature.
Your own fridge, on the other hand, can fluctuate as much as 10°F (5°C), especially when you stand in front of it with the door wide open, deliberating over what to have for lunch.
The garlic confit of Monsieur le Chef is most likely fine, and the foodies on the Internet obviously lived long enough to post their dubious advice. The four-day limit that I recommend and that’s given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among others, is almost certainly conservative.
Botulism is no tummy ache, however. It paralyzes the muscles of your esophagus and your respiratory system. You can’t swallow or breath. The effect is transient, survival is possible, but it’s a mistake that you’ll likely make only once.
And so this may leave you to wonder why you should even bother making something like garlic confit in the first place.
Well, the greatest pleasures in life can be had with just a little organization.
Put your garlic in Ziplock-style bags. Freeze them all, except one, which goes in the fridge. Each new batch from the freezer will thaw probably by the time you get home from work.
And get a seven-dollar fridge thermometer. Your fridge is useless unless its interior temperature is below 40°F (5°C).
This is sensible advice for preparing nearly anything, because food-poisoning manifests itself in every food in many ways strange and undelightful.
Peel the cloves by shaking them in a receptacle of some kind, such as a bowl or a jar.
Ordinary, “soft-neck” garlic is easiest to peel, which is why it’s in my Basic Inventory.
Purple, “hard-neck” garlic is preferred by many for its somewhat more complex flavor. This is how to peel it:
You don’t want to pulverize the clove. Press just until you hear a pop of the skin, which permits you to peel it off with your fingertips. It takes only a little practice.
The cloves must cook as evenly as possible so that all of their aromatic molecules break apart and recombine into flavors of maximum richness and variety.
We also want them to achieve the greatest degree of transformation before caramelization takes hold, at which point the sugars turn brown and develop a characteristically toasted flavor.
Caramelization is delicious, but the flavor is less complex than what immediately precedes it. It’s a highly conspicuous flavor, one that doesn’t just blend into the background. With caramelized garlic, what you’d have wouldn’t be a flavor foundation but a condiment.
To keep caramelization at bay, you’ll cook the garlic at a temperature that affects the transformation you want, and no higher. A simple visual clue tells you exactly when the oil has reached this point.
Visual clues free you from having to use precision instruments or cling to the arbitrary times and settings of some recipe or other. The boiling point of water is one. It’s definitely easy to recognize, and it shows us that water has reached 212°F (100°C).
That’s actually the ideal temperature for preparing garlic confit. It’s high enough to affect the changes we desire and still about 20°F (10°C) below the point at which caramelization occurs.
We don’t actually boil the garlic in water, however, because the turbulence would partially disintegrate the cloves and because oil is a far superior distributor of flavor. One goal in making confits, after all, is to end up with richly infused garlic oil.
Oil presents a challenge, however. It has a very high boiling point. At 212°F, it’s nowhere near even a simmer.
Luckly, foods that you submerge in the oil will release tiny rivulets of air and moisture as they approach the ideal temperature for making confit. These bubbles won’t be any larger than grains of sand; they won’t even disturb the surface as they reach the top.
Once you’ve established this bubble bath (as I call it), you can set a timer and occupy yourself with something else.
This will take about forty-five minutes.
The first time that you make garlic confit will be a little attention-intensive, but if you mark the sweet-spot on your stove dial where the oil is stable, garlic confit from hereafter will be a cakewalk. You’ll make it as soon as you run out and you’ll always have it on hand—which is how it should be with flavor foundations.
Refrigerate what you can use in four days or less. Freeze the rest.
Use a fridge thermometer to be sure that the internal temperature of your fridge remains below 40°F (5°C), and put the confit on the back of the bottom shelf.
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