Substitutions are a natural part of cooking. They are frequently the topic of questions we at Voraciously field every day. Vegan and gluten-free suggestions are probably the most requested, but alternatives to garlic and onions – often for those on a low-FODMAP diet – are coming up more and more.
Here’s an example from one of our recent live chats:
FODMAP is an acronym for six types of short-chain carbohydrates that can contribute to irritable bowel syndrome and other functional gastrointestinal disorders. Monash University in Australia developed the diet and an accompanying app that tells you whether foods are low, moderate or high in FODMAPs.
If you are dealing with chronic GI issues, check with a medical or nutritional professional before making any significant dietary changes. In some cases, they may recommend a low-FODMAP diet, which “consists of eliminating commonly bothersome fermentable carbohydrates for a spell, with a structured reintroduction of different types,” according to “Cook for Your Gut Health” by America’s Test Kitchen with Alicia A. Romano. This way, you see which foods are most problematic for you.
As cookbook author and recipe developer Dédé Wilson told Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan, fructans (part of the “O,” or oligosaccharides, in FODMAP) are “statistically the FODMAP that irritates people the most.” Alliums – the genus of plants that includes garlic, onions and their aromatic cousins – are high in fructans.
If you need to cook without garlic and onions, for whatever reason, here are some substitutions to consider. As with all recipe modifications, remember that they are not intended to replicate the flavor of the original dish. If you are new to cooking without garlic and onions, give yourself the time and patience to find what you like.
FODMAPs are “soluble in water but not oil,” Monash senior researchers Jane Muir and Jane Varney say. “This means that when cloves of garlic are allowed to sit in oil, the fructans remain within the garlic clove and do not leach out into the oil.”
Heating and then steeping garlic and other alliums is a flexible way to go, as in this Gut-Friendly Garlic and Shallot Oil adapted from recipes by Wilson at FODMAPeveryday.com. Be sure to strain out the solids before using – feel free to mix and match garlic, onions and shallots. It may not be a solution for everyone, including those with allium allergies.
The oil is perfect for sauteing ingredients in recipes in which you may ordinarily first cook alliums to form a flavorful base, including soups, stews, sauces, stir-fries and more. Try it in pesto or vinaigrettes, too.
For individual recipes, Muir and Varney say you can saute cloves of garlic in oil before removing them and proceeding with your recipe.
Scallion greens, leek greens and chives are low-fructan alliums, according to “Cook for Your Gut Health.” Because of their more delicate nature, scallion greens and chives pack the most punch when left raw and added at the end of cooking. Heartier leeks can stand up to more heat, meaning you can add them in a recipe earlier.
Onions are often sauteed with carrots and celery as the foundation for many recipes. While celery is also high in fructans, bell peppers are not, so swap them in for the onions and/or celery while using more carrots. You can also add leek greens to the mix. Other sturdier low-FODMAP options include kale stems, parsnips and fennel; think about what makes the most sense for your particular dish. The goal is to create new complex flavors through browning these ingredients in fat, which all of these can do.
Garlic isn’t your only option when you need something for an immediate aromatic payoff. Ginger and lemongrass are two ingredients that will add plenty of flavor after about 30 seconds in the skillet. They work especially well in dishes with Asian origins, but any stir-fry or dish of sauteed vegetables can benefit from their presence.
Alliums bring bright, grassy flavors, and so can herbs. My top picks are cilantro, dill and parsley, all of which do best at the end of cooking or as a garnish. If you’re looking for something that can stand up to more cooking, such as a swap for garlic along with roasted vegetables, consider rosemary, thyme or the underappreciated bay leaf.
In recipes in which garlic, shallot or onions are included for sharpness and acidity – especially raw, as in vinaigrettes or marinades – consider using citrus instead. For the most punch and least waste, employ the zest and juice of lemons, limes and oranges.
Onions contain glutamates, a family of chemicals that contributes to the savory, mouth-filling sensation known as umami, often described as the fifth taste. Make up for onions with other umami-rich ingredients, like dried mushrooms or dried fish flakes, such as bonito, says Celine Beitchman, director of nutrition at the Institute of Culinary Education. Tomato paste is great, too, and you can saute a bit at the beginning of cooking for extra oomph. Also consider miso and soy sauce.
Asafetida, or hing, is a spice that is a staple in Indian cooking. It boasts a potent garlic aroma, though it’s sourced from “the dried sap of a mountain shrub,” spice outfit Burlap & Barrel says. Co-founder and co-CEO Ethan Frisch says the flavor can depend on how you use asafetida. “If you bloom it in fat over low heat at the beginning of the cooking process, you’ll get a rounder, sweeter flavor (more like a caramelized onion or garlic) but if you add it later in the cooking process, you’ll get a sharper, more pungent flavor (like raw garlic or onion).”
A little goes a long way, and recommendations on substitution amounts vary, in part because it may be sold in a lump on its own or as a powder cut with other anti-caking ingredients. Those additions may include wheat or rice flour, so pay attention if you’re dealing with other dietary restrictions (Burlap & Barrel uses turmeric in its formulation). Frisch says 1/8 teaspoon asafetida can stand in for 3 to 6 cloves of garlic, so start small.
To mimic some of the sulfurous flavor of onion, Beitchman says, you can try another spice often used in Indian food: black salt, or kala namak. As with asafetida, don’t go overboard.