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How and when to use garlic powder, a reliable seasoning that deserves respect

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

Garlic powder is essential in my cooking. The dried allium in some form — garlic powder, granulated garlic and garlic salt — has been part of my palate since I was a child enjoying my mother’s recipes. Behind salt and pepper, it is the most used seasoning in my pantry even today. It’s a constant when I want to prepare veggies for roasting, season the meat and flour for skillet-fried chicken or pork chops, or give pantry recipes an extra boost of flavor without needing to pull out a knife and cutting board to use fresh garlic cloves.

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While garlic powder sits high on a pedestal in my kitchen — beloved, revered, irreplaceable — some view it with shame or even contempt, baffled why anyone would choose to use this processed product over the fresh alternative.

“Our prejudice has everything to do with this century’s obsession with all things ‘artisanal’ and ‘natural’ — two vaguely defined terms that are widely used to characterize a food’s worth,” cookbook author Leah Koenig wrote of the similarly maligned onion powder.

To clear up any confusion: Garlic powder is natural. The process to make it is so simple that you can even do it at home: peel fresh cloves, slice them thinly, dry them out, then grind them down to whatever consistency you want, and voilà! You’ve made garlic powder. The ingredient list for the canister in your cupboard should only contain six letters: g-a-r-l-i-c. Anything more and it’s not something you should be spending your money on if you have the choice.

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But it’s exactly that choice that highlights some of the stigma surrounding the seasoning — not everyone has it, which warrants a closer look at the demographics of those who don’t. “Garlic powder got a bad reputation because it was seen as being associated with the type of cooking that fine-dining chefs didn’t have a lot of respect for,” said Ethan Frisch, co-founder of single-origin spice company Burlap & Barrel. “There were racial overtones to that kind of perception of the ingredient.”

Or more explicitly, it’s the connection to Black foodways. “We are garlic fiends in the Black community,” culinary historian Michael W. Twitty said in a conversation with the Los Angeles Times on the subject. “ … We learned how to use it because garlic powder is economical and stays around longer.” The same can be said for people with limited food access from all ethnicities who have made it a pantry staple.

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While my circumstances in life have eliminated my need to rely solely on the dried allium, my want remains, because garlic powder adds complexity and umami to anything it touches, and in certain cases is better than fresh.

“Unlike the dominating flavor of fresh garlic, powder is more the glue behind the glitter, adding a subtle fullness of flavor that may be more difficult to detect than with fresh, but nonetheless makes the meal taste better,” Ari LeVaux wrote in the Austin American Statesman. I consider them two different ingredients, each with their own uses and flavor profiles, and the choice between them primarily comes down to heat, texture and timing. (But if you must substitute one for the other, between 1/8 and 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder has the equivalent potency of one garlic clove.)

When to use garlic powder. When heat is involved, you need to consider the likelihood of fresh garlic burning during the cooking process. So when grilling a steak or frying chicken, while you can use fresh cloves in a marinade, it’s much easier to use powder. Otherwise, you need to be meticulous about wiping the marinade off the food or else you risk an unwanted bitterness from burned garlic. (Garlic powder can still burn, but it is less likely to do so than fresh.) Raw garlic also should not be used in sous vide cooking because there’s a risk of botulism.

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The texture of garlic powder makes it ideal for spice rubs and dredges. Minced fresh garlic would make it lumpy, thanks in part to the moisture, but the dry powder is much more easily dispersed. So anytime I make a spice blend for barbecue or a batch of seasoned flour ahead of dredging and frying chicken, I grab the canister from my cupboard to add garlic flavor.

Another critical aspect to consider is when you want to add garlic flavor and how long after it will be consumed. When making pasta sauce, minced garlic is added toward the beginning of the process to build flavors. Let’s say your pot has already been simmering away for an hour or more, the consistency is just right and after giving it a taste you decide you want more garlic flavor. Adding fresh garlic at this stage would be a misstep as the time it would take to mellow the pungency of the raw garlic would mean having to do some maneuvering to get the texture of the sauce to remain the same. Instead, a few sprinkles of dried garlic will accomplish the trick in almost no time. And in cases where the garlic is kept raw, like salad dressings or dips, the flavor intensity grows over time. So what one day might be perfectly balanced could easily become overpowering the next.

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Garlic powder vs. granulated garlic. The difference between garlic powder and granulated garlic lies in the size of the granules, and which you choose to use mostly comes down to personal preference. “I like to use powder in anything where you don’t really want the garlic to be visible, and you want the flavor to be fully infused into whatever you’re cooking,” Frisch said. That includes things like soups, stews, salad dressings and mac and cheese. However, powder has a shorter shelf life than granulated garlic, which can also hold up to longer cooking times. “I might use granulated garlic in stir-fry or a rub for meat that I’m going to grill where I want the garlic to hold up to the cooking process a little bit longer, or I want a little bit of more distinctive garlic flavor.”

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Remember to hydrate. One final tip to keep in mind is that you need to hydrate garlic powder to release its full flavor potential. Per Cook’s Illustrated, “It’s important to first ‘wake up’ the dormant flavor-producing enzyme in garlic powder by hydrating it — and to avoid heating the powder before doing so since that will destroy the enzyme.”

For all those who already use the seasoning, consider this my rallying cry to do so with pride — and spread the gospel to others. For the naysayers, I’m not advocating that you give up using fresh garlic in your cooking, but I urge you to give its dried form a try to experience for yourself all that it can do beyond being sprinkled on a slice at your favorite pizza joint. And if you’re not willing to take that step just yet, I hope I’ve persuaded you to at least erase any shame you might cast on its advocates and give garlic powder the respect it deserves.

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