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A problem that I sometimes encounter when making dressings or tahini hummus is deciding how long I need to soak garlic in lemon juice after mincing it.

For context, there are several reputable publications on the internet which claim that this step makes the garlic less pungent in the final dish. (See https://www.seriouseats.com/israeli-style-tahini-sauce-recipe, and https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2013/jan/23/lemon-juice-defangs-garlic-20130123/) Having tried out this technique myself, I can verify that it does exactly what is promised: The garlic is mellow and subdued rather than overpowering in my dressings and in my hummus.

My question pertains to the minimum length of time necessary to achieve this effect. Currently, I pour the mixture into a cup, cover it with cling film, and keep it in the refrigerator overnight. I'm almost certain that this is way longer than necessary, but I can't bring myself to change my recipes without actually knowing the true value and, more importantly, why this is so. I reckon it has something to do with the enzyme 'alliinase' which occurs naturally in garlic.

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    Suggested title improvement: "How long should I soak minced garlic in lemon juice for mellowness?" - otherwise it reads as if you are asking for how long in can be stored before it is not good/potentially harmful: days, weeks? Nov 3, 2023 at 22:47
  • * long in -> long it Nov 3, 2023 at 23:20

1 Answer 1

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There is no need to give it time; the few seconds the garlic spends in the lemon juice while you're figuring out what goes in next is already enough.

The thing here is that the acid isn't making the garlic less pungent; it's making the garlic get pungent (much) more slowly after its cell walls are ruptured by being minced or crushed.

The intact garlic cell contains a number of precursor chemicals, amongst them alliin, which aren't particularly strongly flavoured compared to allicin (note the C) which is the compound responsible for most of garlic's famed pungency.

When the garlic cell is damaged and the juices inside are exposed to oxygen, the alliinase enzyme mentioned in your question gets to work converting the alliin into allicin; however, the enzyme needs to be in a certain pH range - not too acidic, not too basic - or it will be rapidly denatured, which will prevent it from doing its thing on the alliin. So, by soaking the minced garlic in acidic lemon juice immediately after mincing it, the alliinase has only a short period of time to produce allicin before the acid gets to it and more-or-less stops the process.

As such, there's no need to leave the garlic in the lemon juice for any significant period; indeed, even in the lemon juice the garlic is actually slowly getting more pungent; your takeaway here is that the main thing that matters for how pungent the garlic gets is time between damaging the clove and soaking in acid. The amount of time that the garlic spends in the acid is largely irrelevant.

As an aside, heating will also denature the alliinase and to a significant degree convert the allicin into other compounds with different, 'cooked-garlic' flavours, which is why this technique is mostly seen in recipes where the garlic is used raw.

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    To throw up some numbers I've used, without trying to compete with a lovely food science answer (lacking a suggestion of time:) One recipe I follow suggests 20 minutes. As I'm not overly religious about how precisely I follow, I can say that 5 minutes seemed to work just fine, too (for garlic in lemon juice in a blender or food processor, where the lemon juice is either there when chopping or within seconds of chopping, and then I go on to make tahini sauce with it.) If the OP is presently overnighting it, they might want to give 20 minutes for the first change before believing me on 5 ;^)
    – Ecnerwal
    Nov 1, 2023 at 23:59
  • Edited to give a more direct answer to the question asked, thanks for pointing that out, Ecnerwal
    – Blargant
    Nov 2, 2023 at 1:52
  • Great, informative answers from both of you - thank you! 😁 Nov 2, 2023 at 7:40
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    So, taking this in reverse - If I finely chop the garlic, thus exposing it to more oxygen, I should have more allicin, giving more pungency? (Which is what I'm always wanting, more more!).
    – Kingsley
    Nov 2, 2023 at 22:10
  • To maximise pungency - which isn't necessarily the same thing as optimising flavour, but to thine own self be true - you'd want to rupture as many cells as possible, so a finer chop or, better yet, a thorough grind, for example in a mortar and pestle, and then let it sit for a while without adding acid, then use it in a raw application. I'll warn that this can come out more adric than spicy, though; sometimes the route to more garlic flavour is just 'using more garlic'.
    – Blargant
    Nov 3, 2023 at 9:18

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