Your pantry might be nearly empty and your fridge devoid of condiments, but if there’s a head of garlic in the house, you’re still ready to make dinner.

Garlic is the ultimate desert-island flavoring, waiting patiently in its papery husk to add depth to pasta sauce, make roast chicken irresistible, and rescue bland stir-fry. And that’s just the start. “I can’t imagine cooking at home without a clove of garlic,” says Michael Anthony, chef/partner at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern. At the restaurant, Anthony tops his lasagna with crunchy fried garlic chips, and stuffs rabbit thighs with garlic confit before he roasts them. His family even boasts their own variety, brought over by his great-grandfather 100 years ago and now cultivated upstate for his restaurant.

But the popularity of the “stinking rose” hides an unfortunate truth: Garlic is often mistreated. Crank the heat too high or chop up a clove too casually, and garlic will dominate a dish with acrid flavor. But if you handle the clove with care, dinner’s in the bag.