It recently occurred to me that I’ve been romanticizing roasted garlic. The cloves’ transformation from hard and pungent to soft and mellow is practically magic, and there’s nothing easier than wrapping a whole head in foil and throwing it into the oven. But when I actually peeled apart an entire oven-roasted head (profound curiosity is part of my job description), my rosy perception of this method and its product quickly changed. When cooked at 400 degrees for an hour (the standard approach), the outer cloves browned unevenly and many of the inner cloves stayed pale and tasted more steamed than roasted. To achieve evenly colored and uniformly buttery-smooth cloves, I found that I needed to drop the oven temperature to 250 degrees and then roast the garlic for a full 2 hours. Harvesting the cloves was problematic, too: Though it was satisfying to squeeze them from their papery chambers, it was also messy—not to mention annoying, since a lot of the soft pulp inevitably got left behind.
It was enough to make me look for a better way to produce silky, spreadable, nutty-sweet garlic. This is how I arrived at garlic confit, a preparation in which peeled garlic cloves are cooked gently in a pot of oil or fat until they are creamy and lightly tanned. The result captures much of the savory-sweetness of roasted garlic in about half an hour. Each clove becomes meltingly tender, and since nothing gets left behind in the skins, the yield is more predictable. Finally, the process generates a valuable byproduct: fragrant garlic oil that can be whisked into dressings, drizzled on cooked meats and vegetables, and sopped up with crusty bread.
Making garlic confit is so simple that most approaches are very similar, but I came up with a few tweaks to ensure the best results. First, for the most evenly cooked cloves, I found it was important to keep the oil at a bare simmer and to use plenty of it, so the cloves were fully submerged—I needed a full cup for 30 cloves (or about two heads of garlic). I also made sure to remove the cloves from the heat when they were uniformly pale tan; though they take on a little more color as they cool, cooking them to a darker brown risked turning their exteriors leathery. Happily, I found that prepeeled garlic works just as well as freshly peeled cloves—though whichever type you use, it’s important to trim the tough root ends, which don’t soften.
I also tested the choice of oil. Almost every recipe calls for extra-virgin olive oil. But since heating olive oil destroys some of its volatile aroma compounds, I wondered if vegetable oil, which is far less expensive (our favorite supermarket extra‑virgin olive oil costs about five times as much as our favorite all-purpose vegetable oil), would work just as well. The answer? Yes, but they are different. When we tasted batches side by side, the olive oil retained enough of its ripe pungency to make for a more complex garlic oil, while the neutral vegetable oil tasted purely garlicky. Both are great options, so the choice is yours.
These tender, creamy cloves can be used in countless applications—spread them on a sandwich, stir them into pasta or potatoes, scatter them on pizza—but here are my top three: Stir them into a pan sauce for a riff on chicken with 40 cloves of garlic; work them into Parmesan shortbread for a savory, sophisticated snack; and mash them with butter and parsley for a savory spread. Magical stuff, indeed.