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Humble garlic powder enters spice limelight

  • LOS ANGELES TIMES
                                Snack crackers — salty and spiked with umami-packed garlic powder — are a favorite treat in the South to go with drinks or to eat out of hand at holiday parties.

    LOS ANGELES TIMES

    Snack crackers — salty and spiked with umami-packed garlic powder — are a favorite treat in the South to go with drinks or to eat out of hand at holiday parties.

  • LOS ANGELES TIMES
                                Garlic powder, easy to find in markets, can be more accessible in some neighborhoods than fresh.

    LOS ANGELES TIMES

    Garlic powder, easy to find in markets, can be more accessible in some neighborhoods than fresh.

When I started working in highbrow test kitchens 12 years ago, garlic powder was seen as a lifeless imitation of the fresh thing. Why use dried when fresh is so pungent, so aromatic, so flavorful? It was also a dictum that pervaded the industry — then deep in the throes of the farm-to-table movement — where reverence for fresh ingredients signaled your bona fides.

Meanwhile, home cooks continued using garlic powder and other dried herbs and spices that were, and still are, essential to the American cooking pantry. And now, with “quarantine cooking” bringing a renewed interest in the practical, an old faithful has returned to chip in: garlic powder.

“Garlic powder helps people skip a few steps to simplify the process,” says Karla Vasquez of SalviSoul, a website documenting Salvadoran foodways. “And it will yield consistent results every time you use it.”

That consistency is a boon, but garlic powder’s recent rise to fame is more due to Tabitha Brown, the TikTok garlic powder queen. No matter what she’s making in her cooking videos, she seasons it with garlic powder. For a vegan and Black woman, this is no accident, as author and African American culinary historian Michael Twitty points out.

“Garlic is big in the Black community because health is related to our community,” said Twitty. “The allicin in garlic powder is good for blood pressure, so you see it used in a way of cooking that’s close to the African diet, which is healthier than the Western diet. And so when you have Tabitha using garlic powder and talking about how eating vegan helped her health, this is where garlic meets the Afro-vegan movement — it’s something that makes nonmeat substitutes effortlessly have that umami flavor.”

Indeed, as Twitty points out: “We are garlic fiends in the Black community. Our cooking relies on a lot of rubs, so when you talk about fried chicken, barbecue, roasts, one-pot stews, that’s what we use.”

The reasoning for the seasoning also involves economics and availability, Twitty said. “We learned how to use it because garlic powder is economical and stays around longer. It’s a texture thing, but it’s a cost thing, too.”

Another question often glossed over when discussing “fresh versus dried”: Who has access to fresh? The answer is often as simple as what’s sold at your local grocery store.

“For Salvadorans, they’re shopping in the mercaditos and Latinx stores, and that determines what ingredients they cook with,” says Vasquez. “In Mexican stores, you see garlic powder and garlic salt in the big display by the produce next to dried chiles, tamales, spice blends and tamarindos. You’re using it because it’s available where you shop.”

Because of its availability in certain markets, garlic powder has enjoyed wide use by predominantly Black and Latin communities for generations — fried catfish, chicken or okra, Caribbean-style roast pork; none would have the same depth without garlic powder. It’s so much a part of that culture that when Black and Latin cooks talk about their food having “seasoning,” that word refers not just to the actual spices used, but to a certain soul the food possesses because it’s flavored to the max, and frequently garlic powder is that seasoning. Its ability to deliver a punch of flavor in a small dose might be the key to why garlic powder has, up until this year, never enjoyed the adoration of mainstream (i.e. white) food media: “It hurts people who like subtlety,” Twitty says, laughing.

But for many cooks, garlic powder — slightly sweeter and less pungent than fresh — builds on the familiar flavors of caramelized meat so much that the two are intertwined. It’s also why it’s the de facto seasoning in not just vegan cooking but for all vegetables.

“When carnivores eat vegetables, they want that umami flavor that things like garlic can duplicate as meaty-tasting flavors,” says Twitty. “Garlic powder makes people who wouldn’t like a certain food love it. If you are trying to eat more vegetables, throw in some garlic powder. You can say to yourself, ‘I’m really eating garlic but I’m also eating broccoli.’”

It can also reinforce meaty flavor already present. Los Angeles’ barbecue master Kevin Bludso — a judge on the Netflix cooking competition show “American Barbecue Showdown” — has used garlic powder his whole life, not just when fresh is unavailable.

“Garlic powder — or granulated garlic as we call it — melds with the meat and smoke to create that bark on the brisket that makes it perfect,” Bludso says. “It gets into the seams of the meat and gives it just a hint of garlic that brings out all the other flavors. People always say you can’t taste it, but if you don’t put it in, then you notice it’s missing!”

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FIRECRACKERS

These crackers were a staple at any party my parents threw when I was a kid. The traditional recipe uses larger saltines, while this riff uses smaller soup and oyster crackers, which are easier to pick at and eat with your fingers or shovel into your mouth at once. I prefer Nabisco’s Premium brand, but any brand will do. Look for them in the cracker and cookie aisle of any grocery store.

Don’t be tempted to use olive oil or butter here. You want a flavorless oil to let the seasonings shine through, unadulterated. And melted butter contains some water, which tends to make the crackers go soggy or have a stale chew to them. The traditional recipe uses packets of dry ranch seasoning mix; in lieu of that mix, which contains dairy and MSG, I use nutritional yeast to keep the mix vegan while also retaining its cheese-like, umami bite. If you’d like, however, use two 1-ounce packets (or 1/4 cup) dry ranch seasoning mix instead of the nutritional yeast.

As for the salt, I know it may look like a lot, but the original recipes call for double the amount listed here. This is an intentionally salty snack, meant to be served with cocktails during a party or at the beginning of a meal. If you want, you can halve the amounts of all ingredients and make less, but I guarantee you won’t have a problem eating them all very quickly.

1-1/3 cups vegetable oil

1/4 cup nutritional yeast

1 tablespoon seasoned salt, such as Lawry’s

1 tablespoon crushed red chile flakes

2 teaspoons garlic powder

1 teaspoon onion powder

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

10 cups soup and oyster crackers (1 pound 2 ounces), or the same weight of square saltine crackers

In a large bowl or gallon-size plastic bag, combine oil, nutritional yeast, seasoned salt, chile flakes, garlic powder, onion powder and pepper. Whisk ingredients together in the bowl or close the bag and massage until seasonings are evenly combined.

Add oyster crackers and toss to coat, then let stand at least 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes so crackers can absorb the seasonings well. If using a bag, close it, lay it flat and gently flip and rub crackers in seasonings every 10 minutes.

Heat oven to 250 degrees. Spread crackers on a large rimmed baking sheet. Bake, stirring crackers halfway through, until fragrant and dry (you do not want to toast or color the crackers), about 16 minutes.

Transfer baking sheet to a wire rack and let cool to room temperature before serving. Makes 10 cups.

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GARLIC FRIED CHICKEN

Along with salt and pepper, garlic powder acts as the primary seasoning for this simple fried chicken, inspired by the one made by the mother of Kevin Bludso, owner of Bludso’s Bar & Que in Los Angeles. It uses only a double coating of flour as a crust, which lets the flavor of the chicken and seasonings shine through. If you prefer a thicker, crunchier coating, try the buttermilk-brined variation, below.

1 whole chicken (4 to 5 pounds), or 3 to 4 pounds chicken drumsticks and thighs

1 tablespoon salt

2 teaspoons pepper

2 teaspoons garlic powder

6 cups vegetable or peanut oil, vegetable shortening or rendered pork lard, for deep-frying

>> Seasoned flour:

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon pepper

>> For finishing:

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon garlic powder

If using a whole chicken, cut off legs; separate thighs from drumsticks. Cut out backbone, then remove center breastbone. Halve breasts, then cut each breast piece crosswise so that one piece has the wing with about a third of the breast and the other piece has most of the breast; remove tips from each wing if you like. You will have 8 pieces total; save chicken carcass for stock or discard.

Set pieces on large cutting board and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Season chicken all over with salt, pepper and garlic powder.

In brown paper bag, combine ingredients for seasoned flour; shake to combine. Add 2 chicken pieces to bag and toss to coat evenly. Transfer pieces to wire rack set over rimmed baking sheet and repeat dredging remaining chicken pieces.

Let pieces sit on rack at least 10 minutes, then dredge a second time. Discard remaining flour mixture, fold bag flat and reserve.

In a small bowl, combine remaining salt and garlic powder for finishing; set aside.

Pour oil or melt shortening or lard in a large, deep cast-iron skillet or heavy-bottomed pot (it should come about 3/4 inch up the side). Attach a deep-fry thermometer to pan and heat fat to 375 degrees over medium-high.

Fry chicken in 2 batches, flipping every 2 to 3 minutes to prevent burning where they touch the pan, until golden brown all over and an instant- read thermometer inserted into each piece reads at least 160 degrees, about 15 minutes. Adjust heat to maintain oil temperature between 350 and 360 degrees throughout cooking. Let oil return to 375 degrees between batches.

Drain chicken on reserved paper bag (or paper towels). While chicken is still wet with hot oil, sprinkle with finishing garlic-salt mixture. Let cool 10 minutes before serving. Serves 4 to 8.

Nutritional information unavailable.

Buttermilk-Brined Fried Chicken: In a bowl, mix chicken pieces with 4 cups buttermilk, then season liberally with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or up to overnight. Drain pieces thoroughly, then dredge in seasoned flour. For a thicker crust, return dredged pieces to bowl of buttermilk to coat, then dredge a second time in seasoned flour. Let rest on rack for 10 minutes before frying.

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