Thursday, January 9, 2014

Onion and Garlic Substitutes

I can't have onion and garlic, but I used to be able to. Which means that my tastes and recipes were set down at a time when onion and garlic were possible, so I miss them.

And that pining for my lost aromatics has resulted in this collection of various onion and garlic substitutions that I've come across or used. These are substitutions where the goal is more to help a dish 'not suck' as opposed to mimicking the exact flavor of onions or garlic.

By Zak Greant from Vancouver, Canada (Spices, seasoning, herbs and vegetables) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Aromatics and spices, yeaaa!

When substituting, consider this:
1. Think about all the components that your original ingredient provided, in this case moisture, bite, bulk, aromatics, or possibly sweetness.
 You need to look at what may be lost when onion or garlic isn't added, and make sure that you are considering all of it, not just the flavor, when you make a substitution. In which case, you could use the below list for flavor substitutions, but might need to add more. For example, a soup doesn't really need any more moisture, so any substitute is fine. But a recipe for a dipping sauce may need the extra moisture cooked onion would have provided, so in that case, you'd need to provide either a substitution that contains all of that or add some liquid.

2. Don't make your taste buds cry: plan your substitutions well.
If you are like me, you might have a brand new diet and completely new recipes and there is so much to think about you might forget to think about whether your substitutions for onions and garlic will clash with the flavors in your dish or not. My advice: you need to think about it. A lot. There are some amazingly horrible results from using the wrong substitution. Trust me, your taste buds don't want you to know about them.

3. Remember your goal is good tasting food.
The goal is NOT 'food that tastes exactly the same as it used to.' That's just not going to happen, and trying to achieve it usually results in food that's not very healthy anymore, and it's never going to taste quite right. It ends up feeling like someone is taunting you with the memory of what your beloved dish tasted like, only it's you taunting yourself. Just wrap up that memory in tissue paper so you can take it out once in a while to enjoy, and move on to finding a different but good recipe to eat in the meantime.

Onion and Garlic Substitutions (for a variety of people who may have a variety of reasons to avoid it):

  1. Just omit it. If it's not a strong flavor for the dish, this can work...but it'll taste more bland. I almost never do this, but in an emergency of 'I just want to eat something today!!' then you can do it. Add some extra salt; that's always good.
  2. If you are not allergic to the entire allium family, then garlic or onion work well as a substitute for each other. Leeks may also work for garlic. If you can tolerate onions but not garlic, then garlic chives can be a good garlic substitute. 
  3. Onion juice. If you react to the onion flesh but don't have an allergy, like some needing the FODMAP diet, then onion juice may work for you as an onion substitute.
  4. Onion seeds. If you react to the onion flesh but don't have an allergy, like some of those needing the FODMAP diet or sometimes those with a sulfite sensitivity, then onion seeds may work for you as an onion substitute. Please note that kalonji seeds, also called 'black onion seeds' and used in Indian cooking, are not actually onion seeds. They won't have the same aroma or allergy potential. I grew my own onion seeds by buying green onions, planting them, and then letting them bloom and collecting the seeds once dry. Onions can take a couple years to bloom, just to warn ya.
  5. Asafetida - also known as hing. Smells a bit more like garlic than onion, so is often a better substitute for garlic. You can find this in Indian or Asian grocery stores, usually. However, even though it's not in the same family, some people I know who can't have onion and garlic also have trouble with this (usually those who have difficulty with high sulfur foods). So I'd buy a small size to start off with if you choose to try this. Also, cook it well. It's got a much harsher bite if not cooked enough.
  6. Ginger. Use as an aromatic, with an almost sweet, flowery smell, but a spicier taste. I prefer grated, fresh ginger. If fresh, cooking will reduce the bite.
  7. Galangal. Use as an aromatic. Has a unique flavor that you may want to taste first so you can decide how much and where to add it.
  8. Ginger and turmeric together. I do fresh for both of these, as they have a little more moisture in them that way, like an onion would. Turmeric, like asafetida, needs to cook a bit to reduce the bite. Very bright yellow color and will make red, yellow, or orange dishes really pop, color-wise.
  9. Fresh horseradish. Grated fine. This is good if there should be a strong bite to the dish, like when raw garlic is needed.
  10. Freshly ground pepper. There are different varieties, like pink peppercorns, white, black, and so on. This adds some bite to a dish. Pink peppercorns, if dry, are not a true pepper and will add a little sweet aftertaste, as well.
  11. 1 part ground coriander and 3 parts slightly crush onion seed. Onion substitute (can work for milder garlic). Frying for a minute helps bring out the fragrance. This is a no-go if you have an onion allergy, but for those on the FODMAP diet for fructose malabsorption, for example, the onion seeds do not seem to have the same components that cause you problems, is my understanding.
  12. White pepper, oregano, and ginger. Onion substitute (can work for milder garlic). I haven't tried this, but sounds interesting.
  13. Fried cumin seeds.
  14. Chopped hot chile peppers. If you're using onions or garlic for the bite in them, this is good. If you need a little bulk, this can work well if you get larger chiles with more bulk, like poblano chiles.
  15. 2 part chopped roasted bell peppers (sweet peppers) and 1 part chopped roasted hot chile peppers. Onion substitute, but can work for roasted garlic substitute. This is better for dishes where the onion was carmelized and you need sweetness as well as a little bite. 
  16. Fennel, carrots, celery, or celery root. For replacing onion or garlic in a recipe that needs more bulk, but with a milder flavor. Use in combination or alone. Carrots and celery are often used together. Fennel works well with chicken or fish. Celery and bell pepper (sweet pepper, for all the UK folks) go well together with rice or savory stews.
  17. Cilantro, or cilantro and parsley. I use this substitution for raw green onions or garlic scapes in something that is not going to be cooked, like guacamole or a sandwich or raw spring roll.
  18. Black salt, also known as Kala Namak. This is a salt used in Indian cooking that has sulfur impurities in it so it has a sulfurous smell that could be reminiscent of garlic or onion. However, from what I've seen on how it's produced, this would probably be a no-go for anyone with a sulfite sensitivity. Check out the link for this; it mentions the processing involved.

Most of these substitutions I've picked up over the last few years and have no idea where I got them, or made up myself, but a few I retained the sources for.

Wisegeek - From here came the fried cumin seeds and hot chile peppers used instead of onion.
Cheftalk forum - From here came the white pepper/oregano/ginger combination for onion. I would not go check them out, however. The forum discussion has more bashing of people with 'supposed' allergies and only one real substitution, the one I picked. It was hard to read about people's ignorant and dismissive opinions on allergies and how they treated those who have them. Save yourself the frustration.
foodallergies at - the fennel, carrot, and celery root, as well as some celery combinations, were found here.

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