Back to the 80’s: Great Garlic Bread (and its many applications)

Rachel writes: I know this is random, but is there a secret to good garlic bread?

Tony’s take: Full disclosure: until you asked, Rachel, I hadn’t really considered, much less made, garlic bread for a long while. But once upon a time, I loved garlic bread (the 80’s are one big salad-bar and garlic-bread haze for me). So I know that garlic bread can be transcendent… alright, really good… so that the bread has a soft buttery chew and pleasant garlic edge. Armed with a lot of memories (admittedly, some of them confusing), I went to the kitchen for a refresher course. Three batches later, I triumphantly rediscovered the roadmap for great garlic bread. And learned it’s not hard (how could it be? it’s just garlic, butter, and bread) and definitely worth rediscovering. Here’s how:

The bread: Of course, good bread makes good garlic bread. But there’s a balance to consider when choosing a loaf. Ideally, you’ll use a “French bread”, one of those wider batons, crusty like a baguette, but slightly softer. The problem with “French bread” is that it often stinks. At most supermarkets it’s the market’s own generic brand, an industrial par-baked frozen loaf which offers substandard flavor and texture. Follow your instincts and pick out the loaf that looks and feels best to you. Whether it’s a French bread, an Italian scali, or a baguette- just look for one that’s crusty with a soft, dense crumb.

 The garlic (make an infused oil): The garlic, of course, is the most important element to good garlic bread. You want its flavor without it becoming burnt or overpowering. Fresh garlic is the way to go. Though garlic powder may have its place (I like it in rubs just fine), garlic bread is not one of them. How to harness raw garlic’s flavor for good (and not evil)? You need to cook it first, saute it, to tame its pungency. Toast a couple cloves of minced garlic with some olive oil. You can embellish this infused oil by adding a fresh herb or even a smattering of crushed red pepper flakes. Then melt a stick of butter in the oil and brush this garlicky mixture on the bread before baking.

The bake: The only real cooking decision is whether to bake the buttered bread open faced or sandwiched. The latter offers a greater contrast in textures – crisp exterior, soft interior. The open-faced approach offer more surface area to brown the bread, but the end result is less nuanced. I tested both approaches and can see the merits of each.  I suggest going traditional, sandwiching the bread together, wrapping in aluminum foil and then baking at 425F, hot enough to get the bread in and out of the oven relatively quickly, about 20 minutes.

The applications: Of course, you can go old-school and make garlic bread part of an incredibly indulgent carbo load (think spaghetti and meatballs). But it also can also aptly fill out a vegetable-centric meal: serve with some stewed white beans and sauteed greens. Or set on the side of some roasted fall vegetables and a lightly dressed mesclun salad. Or serve for dipping with a simple vegetable broth (I made a minestrone the other night).

The method: Heat the oven to 425F. Add 2 Tbs. olive oil and 2 to 4 cloves minced garlic (depending on your affinity) to a skillet. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the garlic starts to sizzle steadily and colors ever lightly at its edges, about 2 minutes. Optional: add a small sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes (if you want some excitement) as well as a smattering of fresh herbs (I went with fresh thyme) if you feel so inclined. Once they, too, start to sizzle, add 6 Tbs. unsalted butter (cut into pats) and swirl around the pan until the butter melts. Split a 1-lb loaf of bread (I went with a baguette) through the side (like a clam shell), set open faced on a baking sheet and brush generously with the butter. Sprinkle lightly with kosher salt. Wrap the baguette with aluminum foil and bake in the center of the oven for 15 minutes so the bread heats through. Unwrap (carefully) and bake for 2 to 3 minutes so the bread becomes crisp. Let cool for a couple of minutes and then slice and serve.

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