So Why Does the Garlic Trick Work?

When it comes to cooking and working marvels in the kitchen, I can pour a bowl of cereal with the best of them. Everything that chefs do surprises me. So I was accordingly amazed by this video from Saveur magazine, which I watched at Open Culture thanks to many comments on Twitter. It shows how to peel an entire head of garlic in just 10 seconds.

The short version is that vigorously shaking a crushed head of garlic inside two metal bowls will within seconds separate the cloves cleanly from the dried peel around them. The question is, why?

Of course, the dry fibrous peel is relatively brittle, so all the agitation inside the shaking bowls helps to break it open along the seams. The clove itself is slightly slippery, so that helps it to slip out of the broken peel.

But I thought something more might be going on, so I did an experiment. I put a single unpeeled clove into the metal bowls, shook them like crazy… and nothing happened. A few flakes of peel had broken away but the clove was still enclosed. When I repeated the trick with two cloves in the bowls, however, it worked as advertised. Both cloves were very neatly separated from their peels.

My best guess is that more than one unpeeled clove is necessary because friction and the mutual abrasion of the cloves as they bounce around inside the bowls is crucial. It’s working on the same principle as a rock tumbler, in which the stones rub one another to smoothness. The trick polishes the peel away from the garlic.

That’s must my guess, however. Anyone have a different explanation, or a different experience in making the trick work?

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32 Responses to So Why Does the Garlic Trick Work?

    • Rebecca says:

      I have one of those silicone tubes too, but the problem I find with it is that the peels stick to the inside of the tube and I am constantly having to reach in and pull them out, or rinse it with water before continuing on with other cloves. If I rinse it with water, then I have to dry it completely first. Haven’t tried this experiment yet, but will do so soon. I see jars and jars of pickled garlic in my future with this trick!!

  1. hrmatuio says:

    Amazing! This will save me a lot of effort, the “why” is definitely secondary to me…

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  3. hat_eater says:

    A lot of people describe their experiences with this method here.
    tl;dr: it works with the right cultivars (big cloves are better) and when the garlic is ripe but not too fresh (peels have to be dry).

  4. Richard Saunders says:

    Why is a peel garlic in 10 seconds video 1 minute long?

  5. Richard Saunders says:

    With a generous count it’s at least 15 seconds of actual labor.

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  7. Pat Bitton says:

    Does it work with bowls made of other materials? Metal on metal sets my teeth on edge, so I don’t own any metal bowls.

    • John Rennie says:

      I didn’t try it with bowls of other materials, but I would think it’s the hardness of the bowls rather than any other metallic property that matters, so you could probably try it with ceramic bowls. Perhaps wooden bowls would work, too: their surfaces might not be as hard but perhaps their greater roughness would increase the friction acting on the garlic and help to peel away the skin.

      If you do the experiment, let me know the results!

      • Zach says:

        Why metal bowls?

        My guess – light weight, therefore easy to shake, won’t break if you drop them, and they also have a lip around that makes them easy to grip.

      • PhilipM says:

        I tried this using a wok with a lid – 2 bowls is just a handy way of describing the process, but anything the right size that contains the garlic should work. I suspect the garlic wasn’t quite right for the experiment because it didn’t work 100%, but was still a lot less work than peeling each clove individually (I was cooking for 25 so I really did need that much garlic).

  8. Jessica Giffen says:

    We used a lidded stainless steel saucepan, and it worked perfectly! You don’t have to have a metal bowl.

  9. Teresa says:

    I tried it with a small stainless steel lidded sauce pan with minimal results. Then tried it with a large sauce pan and that did the trick.

  10. Curt says:

    I actually tried this initially with a single clove and it worked perfectly.

  11. Catherine says:

    I just tried this for the first time tonight – I placed a single clove of garlic in a plastic protein powder shaker cup, shook it a few seconds and then the clove was perfectly peeled! I now have a dedicated garlic shaker cup! What a great technique, wish I’d learned it many years ago.

    • John Rennie says:

      Thanks, Catherine. Your success with a single clove does make me wonder whether my friction explanation is correct, though I’m still at a loss for a good alternative. Perhaps there’s still enough opportunity for polishing friction with a single clove under some circumstances, such as in the right container?

      • Catherine says:

        Yeah, perhaps with the shaker bottle being small enough there is enough friction. The bottle I use is about 5-6 inches long and not too wide.

  12. Joanne says:

    Put it in there with a few insects and you’ve concussed them sufficiently to sautee them with the garlic clove. I believe in multitasking. :)

    I look forward to seeing you at @scio12 again this year! I’m just popping by making “blog calls”, leaving my calling card, and giving a twitter shoutout for everyone!

    See you in January!

    • John Rennie says:

      Thanks, Joanne. I’ve been looking forward to your arrival here as part of your ScienceOnline 2012 blog tour. And of course, I am even more eager to see you again in Raleigh just a few weeks from now.

      Any visitors brought this way by Joanne’s kind message and tweet: Welcome! Look around, make yourselves at home and let me know if you like what you find.

  13. Brucew_o says:

    A way I skin a single clove is push down on it with the side of a large knive until it crushes slightly. The skin then falls off. I strongly suspect the science explanation of this is that when crushing slightly I am flattening it, and so increasing its surface area. The skin is unstretchy and of an area that fits the more spherical clove, so it is forced to split as the inner cloves SA increases.

    Do you think that initial crush with the heal of the hand is doing the same thing? I bet that is what occurs with those flexible tubes.

    Could check by trying the process by initial separating the cloves by hand.

  14. Cathy Baylor says:

    I just use my meat tenderizer. Works like a champ. Use the flat size to smash/peel the garlic, then use the knobby size to break up the clove for cooking.

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  16. Bill Barlow says:

    First, for the people who own the tubular silicone garlic peelers (like me): it’s easy to get the garlic’s “papery remain” out of the peeler without washing it. Just shake it vigorously over the sink!!

    And as regards shaking in inverted bowls: I tried it with glass bowls and a number of clothes and, sadly, nothing happened. But with metal bowls? Works (almost) like magic.

  17. Mmm Garlic says:

    It’s definitely a neat trick but I wonder how many people end up with way more peeled garlic cloves than they want to eat at one time…not a problem for TRUE garlic lovers, of course!

  18. Jean Black says:

    I used my SS steamer and it worked great!

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  20. Sally Everett says:

    At this time of year I only have small cloves left ( I grow my own) and it didn’t work too well so I added 2 small stones and it worked wonderfully !!!

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