Garlic bread may be one of the more ubiquitous foods out there. You’ll find variations on it in all sorts of cuisines which makes tracing its origin nearly impossible. The most obvious answer is to look at Bruschetta in Italian cuisine, but that’s almost as arbitrary a point as anywhere else.
Going to a restaurant menu doesn’t really help us any further as garlic bread is no longer relegated to the domain of a side dish. Many restaurants, Italian or otherwise, now serve garlic bread, garlic knots and whatever other derivative you can think of as stand alone appetizers regardless of how the rest of the menu is formulated.
With so many places making it you’re going to run into your fair share of good and bad. My ex-girlfriend adored garlic bread with cheese, so much so that in the course of a year in college I think I tried garlic bread from 50 different restaurants (if I’m exaggerating, it’s not by much). When garlic bread is really good, it might be the part of a meal you remember most. When it is bad it’s just a huge let down.Like many other dishes, garlic bread isn’t hard to make or expensive at all (thankfully), but with some extra care for ingredients and a little diligence you can make it amazing.
To make good garlic bread we need to talk about three key features: the bread, the filling and the cheese. Traditionally, cheese hasn’t been a major part of the dish, but it appears more and more. I suppose you could leave it off, but why would you? Especially since I have discovered the perfect garlic bread cheese, but more on that in a moment.
Bread: Think about the best garlic bread you’ve had. The bread probably had that perfect combination of crunch and chewiness. You’ll want to look for a bread that has a nice crust to it, but with a soft interior [ Writer's note: What do we call the inner part of the bread? The flesh? Innards? I have no idea.]. French baguettes or Italian bread work wonders and I see some bakeries offering small versions of these normally elongated breads so you get nice even portions for everyone.
The crust is not just for texture, you also want a bread that can hold the mixture and cheese, so sliced bread isn’t really the best idea, unless you’re in a pinch. As for the crumb[I know it sounds weird, bit of a lazy name, but that's it.] make sure it has plenty of small nooks and crannies (like an English muffin), which will help the garlic mixture distribute more evenly.
The Filling: Obviously this starts with garlic. Without garlic we’re just making fancy toast. Along with that, there’s also butter, olive oil, and spices and herbs. Pretty simple to put together. As you’ll see in the process below, I prefer the butter not to be melted when the filling is made. Also, I like a combination of butter and olive oil, not just for flavor, but because it increases spread-ability.
You’ll want to chop the garlic as fine as you can get it, even smashing it into a paste if you have eaters that are adverse to eating garlic pieces. Garlic powder is another good ingredient to give you extra flavor with very little extra work.
Cheese: This might be optional for some, but I consider it an essential part of making good garlic bread. While mozzarella might be a default choice, there are any number of cheeses you could use. You just want to find one that melts really well.
Some cheese gets really stringy when melted, some becoming gooey and fall apart and others actually don’t really melt at all. The gooey and fall apart versions are what you’re after, but it can be hard to tell what cheese will do that. Softer cheeses are definitely good, but as you can imagine, goat cheese melts much differently than a whole milk mozzarella. Practice makes perfect.
My cheese of choice is called Sage Derby. It is an English semi-hard cheese that melts beautifully and is made with various herbs (though as you can guess, sage is traditional). The combination of the buttery rich flavor, the way it melts, and the herb accents make it perfect for garlic bread. It’s readily available in most super-market cheese sections.
Now that we’ve given some thought to the building blocks, let’s talk about construction. As always, there are no recipes to be found in what follows. Just a series of steps to help guide you with a few remarks on technique. The flavors we leave to you.
How to Make Garlic Bread:
Step 1: Cut open the bread (lengthwise for baguettes usually) and scoop out a tiny bit of the crumb. We’re not trying to make a bread bowl or punch through the bottom, but a little divot with give a place for the filling and cheese to go, to permeate the rest of the bread and keep it all from dribbling over the side.
Step 2: Make the mixture by softening the butter and mixing it together with your other ingredients. Keeping the butter soft rather than melted will make it easier to portion the mixture. Also, it helps hold the mixture together so you can get an even distribution of garlic, spices, etc. Don’t worry, it will melt when it bakes.
I like to put a few small pieces of cheese in the mixture just so it isn’t all sitting on top later.
Step 3: Cut the cheese in long thin slices and spread evenly over the bread. Depending on how the cheese melts, you might want to space it out in smaller pieces. If it gets stringy, it won’t spread out as much and you might end up with uneven coverage.
Step 4: Time to bake the bread. I like to set my oven to 375 and put the bread into the cold oven. By the time it comes up to temperature, I spin the bread 180 to ensure even cooking. After another minute or two, give it a blast under the broiler for 1 minute until the cheese bubbles. Don’t let it go too long or the bread will burn.
Keep a close eye during the baking process in general, it’s a fine line between crisp and burnt.
Step 5: Serve immediately. Garlic bread is one of those foods that depreciates as it cools. And maybe I’m a little biased, but I can’t think of a better accompaniment than a big bowl of pasta.