I love it when my food bites back and shows some feisty fire, and few ingredients do that so well as garlic. I adore the sharp retort of garlic the way others chase capsicum heat, and don’t believe too much is ever enough of this wonderful allium – a category of edible flowering plants that are such a glorious gift to cooks, it comes to the kitchen already wrapped in its own paper.
But fresh garlic can be a nuisance to deal with. You’ve got to break apart the bulb, peel the cloves, then dice, slice, smash, or pulverize them, then spend more time getting the smell off your fingers than you did prepping the scant teaspoon the recipe called for.
That’s where garlic powder comes in to save the day: an effortless, low-odor, cost-efficient, and shelf-stable way to add pizzazz to any dish at any stage. A sprinkle into cooking meat or vegetables; a dash into your spice rub, marinade, or salad dressing; a veritable snowbank on top of buttered Italian bread topped with parsley cheese and ready to go into the broiler. (Just me? Okay.)
But what exactly is this magical golden powder? Let’s explore.
What it is: Garlic is an allium native to Asia and predominantly produced in China, but is a pantry staple for cuisines across the globe
How it’s made: Garlic powder is made from real, dehydrated garlic, which is then ground to various levels of fineness
Substitution: 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder = 1 clove of garlic
What is Garlic Powder?
First of all, let's talk about garlic itself.
Garlic is a bulb vegetable that is the headliner of the allium genus—so much so that allium is literally the word for garlic in Latin. This groups of flowering plants includes a massive amount of species, including scallions, onions, shallots, leeks, chives, and other marvelously stinky greens. Believed to be native to Central Asia, South Asia, or Southwester Siberia, its use has become global — a signature, even — to European culinary traditions such as Italian, Spanish, and French.
As much as it’s used to enhance the nutrients and flavors of dishes, it’s also used medicinally and spiritually in various cultures, including in China, the world’s top garlic producer. This country’s climate is ideally suited for growing garlic, which is why it provides 80% of the world’s total each year - a whopping 20 million tons!
Of the 20 tons of garlic produced by China each year, the majority come from Shandong, Henan, Hebei, Yunna, and Jiangsu—five provinces whose mild winters and warm climates soft-neck garlic find appealing. Although over 300 types of garlic are cultivated around the world, this is the category most of the garlic we consume falls under.
The name comes from the fact that their stems remain pliable, allowing them to be braided together for storage a la picturesque Italian market displays. They’re favored for mass production for their ability to stay fresh for nearly a year when stored properly, and their many-clove yield.
Garlic powder is made from these very same bulbs. It may be made from soft- or hard-necked varieties, or a mix of both. The main difference between varieties of garlic powder are their milled consistencies. The bulbs are cleaned under mild pressure to remove the papery protective skin around the head, then each clove is dried or dehydrated and milled to the manufacturer’s prescribed level of fineness. The final product can be minced garlic, coarse or granulated garlic, or soft ultra-fine true powder.
Most of what is labeled as garlic powder is really coarse-ground garlic broken down to a texture akin to dry sand on a beach. True garlic powder is ultra-fine, like cake flour. And there's also garlic salt. (More on that below.)
Garlic Powder vs. Onion Powder
Like garlic powder, onion powder is also made from a papery bulb which has had its moisture removed before being ground into a tiny pieces. However, the vegetable itself creates a world of difference. They may both have similar attributes shared with all alliums in their sweet pungency, but garlic has a bigger bite and stronger aroma. It’s also more potent in smaller quantities than onions.
Visually, the two powders look similar. Granulated onion powder is on the lighter side while garlic powder is a golden yellow. I specify granulation because onion powder is also more easily found in that form, albeit finer than garlic, yet called powder nonetheless. True powder is more challenging to find at conventional markets and yields a sweeter overall flavor.
Garlic and onion are often paired together — I know I rarely use one without the other! — but that’s because they provide balance when combined.
Garlic Powder vs Garlic Salt
Garlic salt is granulated garlic powder mixed with table salt on a 2:3 ratio, plus an anti-caking agent to keep it from clumping together for uneven seasoning.
It’s a very convenient product that is more resistant to clumping than straight-up garlic powder, which gets inconveniently thirsty when there’s moisture in the air. And it does help to keep your salting situation balanced.
Fresh vs. Dehydrated vs. Powdered vs. Granulated Garlic
To me, there’s a place for all garlic in all forms in nearly every dish, which is why I keep all three in my spice drawer, plus paste, minced, and fresh garlic in my fridge! However, each spice-category type of garlic does offer its own character and purpose.
Fresh garlic is known to have a sweet flavor, especially when roasted to a delicious creamy texture. It’s mild enough to be used as a spread if you’re so inclined (which I am, please and thank you).
Freeze-dried or dehydrated garlic that you can reconstitute is a great staple to keep around when you’re short on time but want the properties of fresh garlic in your dish.
Dry forms of garlic, such as powdered or granulated garlic, are essential for any spice collection. These are what you want when you’re looking to present a dish that is evenly seasoned, with garlic flavor melodiously distributed throughout.
Garlic powder is effortless. It won’t scald or burn, because you don’t need to open it up pre-cook like you do with fresh or reconstituted garlic. Instead, it can be added at any time. It also won’t go bitter like its fresh counterpart will. And because all of its grains are all mixed up, they provide consistency that creates a constant, unvaried flavor you can count on. Additionally, it adds flavor without messing with the moisture content of your dish.
True powdered garlic is the most concentrated and pungent form of garlic you can get and is the most easily absorbed into recipes. That’s what makes it my pick for soups, particularly creamy ones. Granulated garlic is your all-purpose workhorse, providing a stronger presence than fresh, able to blend in like powdered, but also offering a bit of a crunch when you use it in breading or finishing seasoning.
Where to Buy
As a global staple ingredient, garlic powder is ubiquitous to most markets, regardless of ethnic angle. You’ll find it in any spice aisle, in the same area as other necessities like salt and pepper.
McCormick is a common go-to for everyday garlic powder, and many store brands white-label garlic powder under their own banner for less money. I use enough of it in such quantity that I’m perfectly satisfied with McCormick’s basic red-label when it’s on sale or Lidl’s organic powder. The name brands may be a bit more potent, but I season with abandon with garlic powder, so I’m not too fussed about it. Either option is not pricey, so it’s really not a big deal to re-up, which we all should do more frequently with our spice cabinets anyway.
So you can treat yourself to Morton & Bassett or go budget with brands like Badia. There won’t be much difference, either, if you go with a gourmet purveyor or niche one, like Goya. And if you’re looking for special occasion garlic powder, you can seek out specific cultivars, like Burlap and Barrel's dramatic Purple Stripe Garlic Powder or Dragon Breath’s Aglio Rosso di Sulmona Garlic Powder from Abruzzo, Italy.
Garlic-based spice blends are also popular. Chances are your favorite spice mix already contains garlic powder!
How to Store
Garlic Cloves to Powder
One clove of fresh garlic equals 1/4 teaspoon of granulated garlic powder. The same conversion applies to dehydrated or freeze-dried garlic, or even minced refrigerated garlic.
If you don’t have plain garlic powder by itself but you do have garlic salt, you can go ahead and reach for that. Just make sure you adjust your recipe with the understanding that the garlic salt will be roughly two parts salt.
If you have that elusive but wonderful garlic powder in real powdery form, the good news is, you won’t run out as quickly—the exchange is half, so half a teaspoon of powder for a full one of the granulated specified in the recipe.
How to Cook with Garlic Powder
Prepping and cooking with garlic powder couldn’t be easier. The beauty of garlic powder is that it doesn’t require blooming (although you can, if you want) and it doesn’t take much to make it dissolve. You can sprinkle by itself it on top of anything, like chicken, pizza, or even bread, before cooking.
Shake some into a marinade to let meld into the liquid and penetrate your meat. Add it to a dry rub spice blend and rub it all over. Stir it into a sauce or stir-fry or sauté as you’re in the weeds, or into soup at any stage. You can even mix it into butter or oil for a quick way to easily dress up your bread.
There are very few savory dishes that don’t benefit from the addition of garlic powder. These are a few recipes that give dishes that extra depth in a smoother, less hit-‘em-over-the-head fashion than chunks of the fresh allium.