If you’ve ever been to a Lebanese restaurant and fell in love with that white garlic sauce that is usually offered with barbq’s or shish tawook (chicken kebobs), today is your day. This post features this garlic sauce’s recipe along with an in-depth guide and references on the chemical reaction that is at the heart of its making.
Garlic Sauce Background & Terminology
In Lebanon they call it “Toom” or “Toum” which literally means garlic. Our Egyptian siblings call it “Tooma”… Our Greek cousins have a similar version which they call “skordalia” and in Spain it’s referred to as “Aioli”. In the US it is generally referred to as garlic sauce, however the fact of the matter is that it’s closer to being a paste than a sauce. The intent at the end is the same, and whatever the name is, a successful garlic sauce has a white, creamy texture similar to that of mayo, sour cream or “Labneh” and with a pungent aroma of garlic, and a mouth-watering tong-tingling blood-pressure-lowering flavor that is a perfect marriage between garlic and lemon juice.
This garlic paste goes very well with many BBQs, especially chicken Shawarma, grilled chicken, kebob BBQ and Chicken Shish Tawook (featured above). You can also spread it over baked or boiled potatoes along with a sprinkle of Cayenne pepper and dried mint, and it also tastes wonderful if you wrap it in a pita bread along with some salty cheese and grill it in a panini grill. Finally, some may be surprised but we tried it spread over Kibbeh Nayyeh (raw kibbeh) and it was out of this world. Check out our Chicken Shawarma , Chicken Shish Tawook, or Lebanese Grilled Chicken recipes.
The SECRET is in the Process of Emulsion, or Emulsification
One day while discussing the process of making this garlic sauce with a dear family friend, Dr. Hisham Abdallah who is a Biotech scientist, and while complaining about how delicate making this sauce is, he pointed out that the reason the sauce breaks is likely due to certain violations that are happening to the process of “emulsification.” It turns out that a chemical reaction called “emulsification” is at the very heart of the making of the garlic sauce.
Simply put, emulsification is a process which allows liquids (water) and oils to “mix,” and turn into a “cream” in the presence of an emulsifier or emulsifying agent, and with the help of an external mechanical force such as grinding, shaking, stirring, spinning, or even using ultrasonic waves. The sequence in which oils and water are added, and the ratios also matter a lot and an imbalance can easily break the emulsification process and turn the ingredients back into a liquid state. That is exactly what happens when our garlic paste breaks in frustration as it gets overwhelmed with oil.
The process of emulsification is used in the beauty and medical industry to make creams and beauty products, and it’s the same process used in making Mayonnaise and vinaigrette, and of course, this garlic paste.
Lecithin is a common emulsifier that is used in the food industry in making creamy food products. It is found naturally in eggs and in soy beans. That is why some folks use an egg white in making this garlic dip in order to help speeding the process of emulsification and to increase the chances of success. However we personally don’t like using raw eggs in our garlic dip mainly because we feel that it leaves an undesirable subtle aftertaste, even though many folks don’t even notice it due to the potent flavor of garlic. Instead, we depend purely on the emulsifiers that naturally occur in the garlic. This along with some patience, and a careful following of the procedure, should yield an egg-free successful fluffy garlic paste. If one wants to go the extra step, Soy Lecithin which can be found in specialty baking stores, or on Amazon, can also be used as an added emulsifier in making this garlic dip. Mira, a molecular gastronomy blogger noted that Lecithin shouldn’t alter the taste if used in small quantities.
In-Depth Understanding of the Emulsification Process
If you’d like to nerd it out like I did, check those two videos from Harvard School of Engineering and Stella Culinary on the process of emulsion or emulsification.
The Harvard video features a chef from Spain who showcased how emulsification works in the making of Garlic Aioli. He made the Aioli using at least 10 different methods. Also check this in-depth Emulsion Guide for Cooks from Stella Culinary.
Traditional Garlic Sauce Preparation Method
The Lebanese garlic dip was traditionally made using a pestle and mortar. Our mothers, bless their hearts, would first add the freshly peeled garlic cloves and salt to the pestle and hammer it away until it’s completely crushed. Then, they would add a tiny bit of olive oil (1/2 teaspoon) and hammer away for a minute or so, and then repeat this step for perhaps 30-40 minutes until the oil has been used, while adding a few drops of lemon juice throughout. Another way to do it is to wait on adding the lemon juice until the end. Both ways work.
Modern Preparation Method
Over time, the garlic paste making process slowly moved to food processors and olive oil was substituted with vegetable oils which made the dip less biting and even whiter.
The exact same concept of emulsification applies when making the garlic sauce in a food processor. Oil must be added at an extremely slow rate while the food processor is constantly running, and the oil pouring must stop occasionally for a few minutes to allow the garlic paste in the processor to absorb the new oils.
Feature Video: Chef Kamal Making The Garlic Sauce
Chef Kamal is a Lebanese American Chef and food blogger with some amazing recipes. I recommend checking his book on Traditional Lebanese Cuisine. Below we feature his video of making this Lebanese garlic paste and I love how he simplified the process and broke it down in very simple and easy steps. Check out his video below:
Now a side note that I heard in Chef Kamal’s video, and which I’ve also heard from many other food bloggers and chefs, and I used to also believe it myself too… There is a belief that if the ingredients are contaminated with water, the sauce will break. However after I’ve researched the process of emulsification, and watched the above two videos from Harvard and Stella Culinary, I’m not sure that this is fully accurate anymore. The nature of the process of emulsification is that it needs water molecules to bind the oil molecules. Water is a must. Garlic naturally has water, just like all veggies, and lemon juice also has water. So when we add garlic and lemon juice during the process, we’re practically adding water. In fact, the Harvard video shows the Spanish Chef making Aioli (similar to our garlic sauce) with water droplets, instead of lemon juice. I’ve also tried that at home and got a successful fluffy garlic paste with using water (and adding the lemon juice at the end).
So what we need to be careful about then are the ratios of oil to water: if you have too much oil, it breaks, and if you have too much water (or lemon juice), it breaks just like Chef Kamal noted. The ratio must be respected and for those who like to geek it out here is a nice guide below from Stella Culinary on the ratios (look for the 2nd row, Mayonnaise & Aioli):
|On to the recipe…|
- 3 heads of garlic, pealed
- 4-5 cups of vegetable oil (canola/sunflower/peanut etc…)
- 1 lemon, freshly juiced
- 1 teaspoon of salt (or to taste)
- Before you start, ensure that all ingredients are at room temperature for a more reliable outcome. Also if you are using a large food processor make sure you use at least 3 heads of garlic otherwise smaller quantities of garlic won't be easily chopped by the blades.
- Add the garlic and salt in the food processor and run for 10-20 seconds.
- Stop processor, scrap garlic down the sides, then run processor again for another 10-20 seconds. Repeat process 3-4 times until garlic starts to turn pasty and looks crushed. The garlic must look well crushed as an important step before proceeding.
- At this point, turn the processor back on and keep it on until the end. If however you're using a high speed blender instead of a food processor, you may need to start and stop it occasionally so it doesn't overheat.
- While the food processor is turned on, start adding oil slowly in a very thin stream, each ½ cup at a time. After adding the first half cup you will start seeing the garlic emulsify and turn into a paste already.
- While still running, add ½ teaspoon of lemon juice very slowly, in a thin stream.
- Wait on it a few seconds until the lemon juice is well absorbed then go back to repeating the same process of slowly adding ½ cup of oil, waiting a few seconds, then adding ½ teaspoon of lemon juice until you’ve used all ingredients. This process should take 8-10 minutes.
- If at any point you see that the paste is turning liquid, it may be an indication that you’ve added either too much lemon juice, or oil, or you may have added them at a fast rate. In this case your options may be limited especially if the paste completely breaks. Sometimes adding a cube of ice may help.
If the resulting garlic paste is too biting/strong, you could either mix it with a mashed medium size baked (or boiled) potatoe, or you can increase the amount of oil.
You could also add a small pinch of citric acid in the beginning with the garlic and salt to make the paste more tangy.
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