Graphic: Libby McGuire
Burning QuestionsBurning Questions is The Takeout's Q&A feature that satiates your food and drink curiosities  

This is a subject near and dear our hearts right now, as we just wrapped up Garlic Week, in which we made garlic bread, garlic beef, garlic soup… pretty much, we all smelled like garlic. Some people like that smell (not vampire-type people), but here was a question that has come up several times recently: What is the best way to get food odors off your hands?

We’ve heard a number of theories: stainless steel, lemon, cold water, hot water, baking soda. Lucky for us, our friends at America’s Test Kitchen have already gone through all of this, per usual. Lisa McManus, executive editor of tastings and testings at America’s Test Kitchen, told The Takeout: “when you’re washing you always want to use hot soapy water,” joking that “hot and soapy” is kind of a mantra around ATK parts. And not just running your hands under the faucet, either: Scrub for a full 20 seconds, about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday.” Then, “that will kill most of the bacteria and the germs.”

Sure, but what about the smells. Garlic seems to be the biggest culprit for stinky skin, so I focused my inquiry to our favorite aromatic allium. The Test Kitchen team had five testers mince garlic and rub it on their hands. They then washed with baking soda, vinegar, toothpaste, lemon, and again with the soapy water. Says McManus: Although all of it worked a little, “baking soda and lemon juice outperformed the other methods.” But they all “lessen and attack the smell in different ways.”

The reason is: science. As McManus explains: “Aromatic garlic are weak acids that are neutralized by the alkaline baking soda. But because not all the aroma compounds are acids, it didn’t work 100 percent.” Science is also the reason why some people suggest rubbing your hands on the stainless steel sink, because the iron atoms in the steel exchange some of their electrons with the sulfur atoms in the garlic, McMacnus explains. Kendall College culinary institute assistant professor at National Louis University Wook Kang agrees. “Rub your hands on stainless steel,” he says. “There are bars that are replicated soap bars made of stainless steel that also remove odors.”

Lemon juice has its own fragrance and has its own odor, which also makes it an effective cleaning method. Peter Demarest, general manager of The Stinking Rose, a restaurant specializing in garlic in San Francisco (with another location in Beverly Hills), says some of his staff just douse their hands in lemon juice to offset the garlic smell. But a city ordinance, actually, has solved the problem altogether: “At any restaurant in San Francisco they have to wear gloves when handing any kind of produce, meat. Even bartenders when they’re cutting fruit. The gloves might smell, but we throw those out.” Rubber gloves could also solve your problem if you’re worried about hand smells at home.

Advertisement

Jim DeWan, chef instructor at Kendall College at National Louis University, says that this question comes up in his classes often, especially when dealing with garlic or fish. He also prefers lemon to mask the smell: “Lemon and garlic are a great combination.” He has also seen the stainless steel soap bars, “something about the sulfur ions.” He has a bigger, more philosophical question, though: “Why are you worried about that?”

It’s a valid question. “If you wash, your hands are clean,” DeWan declares. “If they have aromas, I don’t see what they have to worry about.” If you’re around food, you end up smelling like food. “I just figure I reek of garlic all the time.”

I get it. But I’m a very olfactory person. If I was making a romantic dinner for someone, and then smelled like pot roast, I would probably be self-conscious about it. But DeWan countered, “You have your smells on your fingers because you’re cooking food for people! If anything, you should be proud.”

Advertisement

Fair enough, but as a smell-conscious person (not for nothing I am a frequent buyer at Bath & Body Works) I still will have some lemon at the ready—and maybe invest in one of those little stainless steel soap bars—to offset any lingering aromas. But this is a temporary problem, as McManus points out, “It will go away anyway about a day anyway, unless you’re just baking in garlic.” Even Garlic Week smells subside eventually.