How we tested
I love garlic, but I hate preparing it. The papery skins get everywhere, it takes finesse to perfectly mince the tiny cloves, and I find it nearly impossible to rid my hands of that garlicky smell. I know I’m not alone. There are a variety of presses, peelers, and tools available to make prepping garlic easier, and supermarket shelves are filled with products, from prepeeled cloves to dried and powdered garlic, that aim to shortcut the process. We’ve already given careful consideration to garlic tools, but not to supermarket substitutes for fresh garlic. How do they really compare with fresh cloves?
To find out, we tried seven different products: prepeeled cloves, frozen garlic cubes, refrigerated garlic paste, shelf-stable garlic paste, and three different types of jarred minced garlic. Since we use dried garlic and garlic powder differently than we use fresh garlic—usually in rubs and spice mixtures—we didn’t include them in this testing. For consistency, we used the instructions on the packaging of each of the products in our lineup to determine the amounts that equaled one clove (one product didn’t provide instructions), and then we used each of them to make vinaigrette and aglio e olio (a simple pasta with garlic and oil). We then compared the versions we made with the substitutes to versions we made with fresh garlic that we peeled and prepped ourselves.
Zeroing In on Flavor
The flavor of fresh garlic can be as changeable as a chameleon, ranging from sharp and spicy to sweet and mellow. However, we were surprised to find that the dominant flavors of many of the products were neither punchy nor robust and were instead described by tasters as being “acidic” and “tart.” A “sour” flavor was detected by some tasters, to varying degrees, in five out of the seven products we tried, and it was particularly notable in the pastas we made with the jarred minced garlics, which seemed to have nary a hint of garlic flavor at all.
We looked at ingredient labels and found that all five of the products that tasters deemed “sour” contained chemical preservatives such as citric acid or phosphoric acid. These preservatives keep shelf-stable foods safe by acidifying them, and they most likely produced the tartness our tasters noted. And while this acidity was prominent in the pastas we made with them, it was undetectable in the vinaigrettes that contained a hefty amount of tart lemon juice. Still, these five products had “weak” garlic flavor no matter how we sampled them. That said, we did find two substitutes with the pungent, spicy flavor we expect of fresh garlic: prepeeled cloves and frozen garlic cubes. Why were these products so potent and flavorful while so many others were muted and bland?
How Garlic Gets Its Potency
Garlic gets its pungent flavor from a number of chemical compounds. One of the most potent is called allicin, which is formed when the clove is chopped or cut. While this compound is extremely potent—which is why your hands, breath, and kitchen can smell like garlic for hours after preparing and eating it—the allicin in raw garlic is also very volatile and starts to convert to more stable, less aromatic compounds the longer it sits. Heat also tempers the volatility of allicin, which is why cooked or roasted garlic tastes much milder than raw garlic. However, some chefs swear that garlic should be chopped just before cooking or serving to maximize its flavor, particularly in recipes such as vinaigrette that call for raw garlic. The volatility of allicin is likely the reason why many of the prepared garlics we tried fell flat on flavor: Once the cloves are cut or minced, they begin to lose their potency, and they often sit on store shelves for weeks or months as the allicin continues to dissipate. Jarred minced garlic is also often packed in water, which can dilute these volatile chemicals—when you scoop minced garlic out of a jar, you’re leaving a lot of garlic flavor behind in the water.
Prepeeled cloves of garlic, on the other hand, retain their potency because only the protective, papery skins have been removed; the cloves haven’t been cut or crushed. But the cloves used to make the frozen cubes we tested were processed to a paste, so why do they retain such potent flavor? The manufacturer states that they process and flash freeze the garlic they use to make their paste within 90 minutes of harvesting it, so the garlic’s allicin is frozen before its pungency has a chance to dissipate. Tasters subsequently found the garlic flavor in the pasta and vinaigrette we made with the frozen cubes to be "bright," "fresh," and "comparable to fresh garlic."
The Textures of Garlic Substitutes
The textures of the garlic products we tasted also varied. One of the advantages of buying a whole bulb of garlic is that you can prepare it to suit your recipe: from slivering to mincing to making a paste or even using the cloves whole. The garlic in six of the products we tasted was processed into pastes or minced. Of these six, tasters had a slight preference for the pastes, which blended easily into vinaigrettes and coated pasta well. However, there are limitations to using a garlic paste, as it won’t work in recipes such as Pan-Steamed Kale with Garlic or Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic that call for whole cloves or distinct garlic pieces. Only one of the products we tested—the prepeeled garlic cloves—offered the same versatility as a fresh clove.
The Best Garlic Substitutes: Prepeeled Cloves and Frozen Garlic Cubes
Ultimately we arrived at two really great garlic shortcuts: prepeeled cloves and frozen garlic cubes. The prepeeled clove product—Spice World Fresh Peeled Organic Garlic—was nearly identical in flavor and texture to the cloves of garlic we peeled ourselves. Most tasters couldn’t distinguish between the vinaigrettes and pastas made with prepeeled cloves and the versions made with fresh cloves (though a few tasters deemed the garlic flavor in the dishes containing the prepeeled cloves “a bit more subdued”). They’re a great shortcut for those who hate wrangling with papery garlic skins.
By far the easiest product to use was Dorot Garden Crushed Garlic frozen cubes: You simply substitute one cube for each garlic clove, no measuring spoons, knives, or tools required. The frozen cubes melted quickly, even in no-cook recipes such as our vinaigrette—the cube fully dissolved in the few minutes it took for us to finish mixing the dressing. However, the texture of the dissolved cube is very uniform and pasty, so it’s not the best option for recipes that rely on distinct pieces or whole cloves of garlic for success.
I now consider myself a frozen garlic convert, and I’ll use it in most recipes that require just a clove or two for a punch of garlic flavor. (I’ll still keep prepeeled cloves on hand for recipes that require distinct, intact garlic pieces or whole cloves.) However, the convenience of using our two garlic substitutes comes at a premium. Both recommended options cost significantly more than a bulb of supermarket garlic (about $0.25 per ounce at the time of testing). The prepeeled cloves cost three times as much—about $0.75 per ounce—and, at about $1.10 per ounce, the frozen garlic cubes are even more expensive. So while both prepeeled cloves and frozen garlic offer a valuable shortcut on preparation time, whole garlic bulbs are still the cheapest and freshest option.
- Test seven widely available substitutes for fresh garlic: prepeeled cloves, frozen garlic cubes, refrigerated garlic paste, shelf-stable garlic paste, and three top-selling jarred minced garlic products
- Use each in Make-Ahead Lemon-Garlic-Chive Vinaigrette, comparing the results with the same recipe made with freshly prepared garlic
- Use each in Pasta with Garlic and Oil—Aglio E Olio, comparing the results with the same recipe made with freshly prepared garlic
- Evaluate the flavors and textures of each product along with how easy each was to use