Alternative to Onions
August 3, 2016 4:59 AM   Subscribe

I thought ferreting out hidden dairy in products was bad. Onions are worse. I know there are whole groups of foods and recipes I can do up sans onions but how can I fix my favorite foods without onions.

Big example: vegetarian pinto beans in the crock pot. I usually just hack an onion in half and throw it in the pot with beans and some side meat. What can I reliably and flavorfully sub for onion the rest of my life? Middle aged family genes kicking in and since nuking onions from my diet I feel sooooo much better.

Pinto beans are a huge staple in my diet. I've learned to do a lot of foods that don't require onions but I think if there's a good substitute out there I can "clean cook" a lot more foods too ....
posted by tilde to Food & Drink (27 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Asafoetida / Hing.
posted by SpringAquifer at 5:01 AM on August 3, 2016 [12 favorites]

Do other alliums bother you, or just onions?
posted by Night_owl at 5:02 AM on August 3, 2016

Response by poster: Thinking it's prolly anyone in that family ... Had tingly lips and trouble breathing that wasn't asthma (Benadryl ftw) after Chinese takeout with onions a few times recently and an oniony salad. I've got siblings with allergies and it's more than just onions for them. So I think I'd need to not sub in like Leeks.
posted by tilde at 5:07 AM on August 3, 2016

Response by poster: Hah okay side meat isn't veg. When I make pintos veg I sub roasted garlic and bacon salt for side meat.
posted by tilde at 5:10 AM on August 3, 2016

Best answer: You don't have to include an onion at all when you cook pinto beans. As someone who has eaten an alarming amount of pintos in my lifetime, most of the time they were made with just beans, water and salt and tasted fine.

But you could try a carrot or celery. Or both.
posted by bunderful at 5:21 AM on August 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

But you could try a carrot or celery. Or both.

Carrot-celery-green bell pepper as a variation on the "holy trinity" of aromatics would be my first go-to.
posted by briank at 5:37 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

+1 for carrots and celery, the other two ingredients of a mirepoix.

Edit: mirepoix = holy trinity!
posted by mchorn at 5:40 AM on August 3, 2016

Best answer: Basically, just get a list of aromatics and try non-onion combinations that sound good to you. Here's a graphic that has dozens of suggestions -- carrots, celery, bay leaves, ginger, cilantro, bacon, saffron, cinnamon, and many more.
posted by ourobouros at 5:40 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Seconding Asafoetida / Hing / Perungayam. Triple-ziplock the container if you don't want your kitchen to smell like a cow byre, though. The magic happens when it hits hot oil: the smell goes from frankly rancid to the most beautiful onion flavour. Sooo good!
posted by scruss at 6:08 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

FYI per your update, garlic is part of the allium family. Otherwise that would have been my suggestion. If alliums are starting to bother you, you may want to avoid garlic as well.
posted by Night_owl at 6:09 AM on August 3, 2016

Best answer: Edit: mirepoix = holy trinity!

No, mirepoix = onion, carrot, celery, usually in a 2:1:1 ratio. Holy trinity = onion, celery, and bell pepper, usually in a 3:2:1 ratio.

OP, I'd suggest marrying the ideas together and doing carrot, celery, and bell pepper. I think I'd do a 1:1:1 ratio with that. You could increase the carrot for a sweeter variation or increase the bell pepper for a bit more bite.

Other aromatics to try include ginger (my favorite!) and fresh herbs. Seconding that you might want to steer clear of garlic too. :(
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:46 AM on August 3, 2016 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Food advertised as being OK for Jains will not contain onion - some Indian restaurants will adapt meals to be suitable for Jains, and I've seen packets in Indian grocery shop advertised as OK for Jain diets. Some east-Asian Buddhists also avoid garlic (and ginger) as being a bit too exciting - when flying it's often possible to select this as a specific type of dietary requirement.
posted by BinaryApe at 6:47 AM on August 3, 2016 [6 favorites]

Seconding look for Jain recipes - there are some good sites out there with delicious recipes, some more Indian and some more American in style.
posted by mumimor at 6:56 AM on August 3, 2016

Might be worth talking to an allergist before changing your diet, in case it's something other than onions that triggered your reactions, or to find out if there's another option than nuking alliums from orbit. I also used to have symptoms like yours when I ate certain fresh fruit. Allergy shots have wiped those symptoms off the map. Not for everyone of course, but if you also have seasonal allergies there could be a relationship there worth exploring. I tried going onion-free for a month as part of a headache-reduction exercise, which led to great sadness and stress because onion powder is in everything. (Thankfully(?) it wasn't the culprit).
posted by rouftop at 7:18 AM on August 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

I often make pintos with either mushroom or vegetable* Better Than Bouillon, bay leaf, cumin (a few seeds, or a shake of pre-ground), a handful of baby carrots (halved longways, so I can take them out after) and either a chunk of bell pepper (I don't like biting into bell bits) or a minced jalapeno if I'm feeling sassy. Sometimes I use Sazon Goya, either Tomato & Cilantro or Cilantro & Achiote. I don't always leave onion out, but I don't necessarily notice if I skip it.

*Which might have onion in it, check the label.

I think bacon salt has a funny tang and I like to use better salt, so I just use a drizzle of liquid smoke and a dollop of maple syrup when I'm making vegan dishes that I want that kind of flavor in. But I like my pintos more Mexican than smoky.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:36 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

thirding asafoetida/hing -- that's what Indian vegetarian dishes use in lieu of onion/garlic as alliums are forbidden in their Hindu vegetarian diet, and Indian cuisine has a lot of beans and pulses in them, so it won't be so unusual. Buddhist vegetarianism also forbids alliums, but East Asian Buddhist cuisine doesn't use hing as much, and form their bases a little differently.
posted by cendawanita at 7:51 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

For dishes where you don't need an onion flavour so much as you need a flavour boost -- do you use MSG?

(The nonsense about 'Chinese restaurant syndrome' has been thoroughly debunked, so don't fret over theoretical headaches or anything. It's a salt, you eat it all the time as it shows up naturally in some foods already. Well worth adding to a pot of pintos...)

Oils and vinegars are also the vegetarian's friend for flavour boosting/enhancing purposes while cooking. The Canadian in me is also prone to chucking a dash of maple syrup in savoury things -- not enough so it could be identified as maple syrup-flavoured, but just enough to add a tiny bit of sweetness and another layer of flavour.
posted by kmennie at 8:57 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Are you already using bay leaves? They're quite nice. If you can, the plant is nice to have -- it can form a hardy shrub, or even a topiary -- and then you can just grab one or two leaves to add whenever you want. You can buy dried leaves, too.

Also for flavoring: nutritional yeast. Not sure how it would be with pintos, though.

Have you tried black beans? I think they have more flavor naturally (though that could be me being fooled by the color, maybe it's worth a try -- they're a little more nutritious than pinto beans, anyway, but not a huge amount).

Finally, if you're eating them with rice, maybe try wild rice or a wild rice blend. Adds flavor and texture.
posted by amtho at 9:12 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Food advertised as being OK for Jains will not contain onion

Manjula's Kitchen, for example, is a very comprehensive website on Indian cooking in which none of the recipes have garlic or onion (see her FAQ) -- you may not want to cook Indian all the time but it's useful to see how she creates flavor without onions.
posted by andrewesque at 9:41 AM on August 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: If you suspect you are allergic to onions, please go see a board-certified allergist (not a generalist doctor-- an allergist) and get proper allergy testing done. If you have a true food allergy to onions (or to any food), you need to get a prescription for EPINEPHRINE and carry it with you in case of accidental ingestion (say, while eating at a restaurant or at a friend's house). Benadryl works fine for hives and itching but it will not stop allergic anaphylaxis-- which is a potentially life-threatening event. An allergist can also help you sort out whether you are allergic to any other related foods, so you'll know definitively what you need to avoid.

I have heard of people using asafoetida powder as an onion and garlic substitute. Asafoetida comes from a plant in the fennel family and is used often in traditional Jain dishes. I also second the recommendation of nutritional yeast as a flavor enhancer.
posted by BlueJae at 9:57 AM on August 3, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'll second Scruss's hing recommendation/warning. It's delicious, but my Jain friends report fleeing the house whenever their mums break the hing out
posted by Kreiger at 10:16 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: My doc is aware of all this and I have a prescription epi pen. This also seems to be happening with milk and cheeses. Well, the phlegm part. We are looking at underlying issues.

Thanks for all the great responses. Never would have thought of celery.
posted by tilde at 10:30 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I recently made "classic potato salad" and left out the onions because they give me acid reflux. I added in fresh dill and parsley and it was great. They added the aromatics and "bite" that the raw red onion gave the original recipe.
posted by radioamy at 1:03 PM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

[…] mushroom or vegetable* Better Than Bouillon […]
*Which might have onion in it, check the label.

I just checked a jar of the vegetable Better than Bouillon, and it does indeed contain onion, onion powder, and garlic powder. The internet claims that the mushroom flavor does too.
posted by JiBB at 3:24 PM on August 3, 2016

Fennel bulb is my go to when I need to sub out onions. Also, Hing is wonderful. Best of luck feeling better!
posted by metasav at 5:15 PM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well I've cut out a lot of stuff since I posted this and made a stew with some good quality meat, potatoes, and a spice mix called Montreal Steak. Oiled and seared the meat, then deglazed the pan with a hoppy beer and celery. Poured it in the dock with dried chick peas and regular peas and a bit of water and one cube of chicken bullion (I have a bunch to use up).

Fridged overnight before I added potatoes, water, and the bullion cube.

Subtle deep flavor that reminded me of eating at our local traditional German and Hungarian restaurants.

Thanks, all. Def feeling better and like I'm eating real food again.
posted by tilde at 3:54 PM on August 13, 2016

Response by poster: Oh, and I'm going to use the leftover liquid to start my next batch of pintos.
posted by tilde at 3:56 PM on August 13, 2016

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