Substitution for onions in fried or sauteed food
September 28, 2018 6:26 AM   Subscribe

I've started cooking at home. I have an onion sensitivity (onions, even cooked, don't agree with me). What's a good substitute for onions in recipes like this where one of the instructions is to start by sauteeing an onion until golden brown? Am I safe just substituting/skipping to sauteeing garlic, or is there something else I should do?

I'm not looking for alternate ways to cook onions. I want to eliminate them entirely instead of finding different ways to cook them to make myself less queasy.
posted by pxe2000 to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Onions are very sweet when cooked and in many dishes they dissolve and provide texture, as well as depth of flavor. You could add applesauce or chopped apple - about 1/2 as much as the recipe calls for onion, and maybe sauteed shredded carrot or cabbage, both of which are also sweet when cooked, esp. carrots. Mushrooms add depth of flavor. Shallots are delicious, but you may also be sensitive to them.
posted by theora55 at 6:30 AM on September 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

I have a friend who doesn't eat onions, and I just leave them out when I cook something he's going to eat. My life isn't Top Chef, so my food doesn't have to be amazing.

But I think celery would be a good substitute.
posted by FencingGal at 6:40 AM on September 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

Does your sensitivity extend to leeks, scallions, or chives? Leeks especially will have more of the texture and bulk of yellow or white onions than garlic or shallots.
posted by briank at 6:41 AM on September 28, 2018 [9 favorites]

In a stir-fry like that I'd use a red bell pepper. It's not going to be the same but you can still get the caramelizing effect.
posted by something something at 6:43 AM on September 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Sautee garlic and ginger instead. Just the garlic if it isn't as vibrantly seasoned of a dish.
posted by cacao at 6:47 AM on September 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you're sensitive to onions, don't substitute or compensate with garlic, as it's a similar-yet-stronger allium that has higher concentrations of the sulfur compounds that generally are the source of disagreement with people.
posted by gyusan at 6:55 AM on September 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

So I can't personally vouch for it, as I haven't cooked with it for a decade, but if you're looking for onion flavor and not texture then maybe try asafoetida powder (aka hing.) It's an Indian spice (powdered sap from a fennel root) that's meant to be cooked in oil and tastes like onion and garlic.
posted by OMGTehAwsome at 6:57 AM on September 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

Some Indian cuisines use hing or asafoetida as a substitute for onions and garlic.
posted by slogger at 6:58 AM on September 28, 2018 [5 favorites]

I have a super weird specific food allergy, so I will believe you that onions are bad, garlic is fine.

Have you tried shallots? I prefer them over onions by A LOT. They are very subtle in flavor, so the chemical properties may be completely different and very pleasing and delicious for you. In fact, they are a plant halfway between an onion and a garlic. Try a shallot!

Otherwise, leave it out. There is no substitute, so no worries. I completely agree you won’t miss it from 99% of recipes.
posted by jbenben at 7:04 AM on September 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

I was just going to suggest shallots! So I'm seconding jbenben's recommendation. I often substitute shallots just because I like them better than onions.
posted by cooker girl at 7:07 AM on September 28, 2018

When my wife was trying to avoid onions for mostly acid reflux reasons, leeks agreed with her better.
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:11 AM on September 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Oh, I meant to add that there's not really a substitute for onions and the complicating factor is that there are SO MANY recipes from SO MANY cuisines that call for onions that having one universal substitute is difficult.

So for, like, chili, bell peppers would be a decent sub for onions. You can caramelize them, too! Just don't burn them. I wouldn't sub shallots for onions in chili.

For Italian dishes (a lot of red sauces call for onions), shallots are a great sub. Wouldn't necessarily recommend bell peppers, but maybe would and maybe only red or yellow. Depends on the recipe.

As for the garlic and ginger rec above, yeah, that would be great for the specific recipe you linked but would be terrible for chili or Italian or stews.

Basically, once you get really familiar with ingredients, you'll know what flavor profile you're looking for and you'll know what would work with certain dishes.

And oftentimes, you can just skip the onion altogether and not worry about it.
posted by cooker girl at 7:12 AM on September 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

I really hated onions for a long time and just skipped them in recipes, and even though I like them now I'm not sure I'd bother in a recipe like the one you linked, which has plenty of other flavors in it. You're probably going to have to give up onion rings, onion soup, and green bean casserole with the fried onions on top, but everything else is pretty much negotiable.

If you can use onion powder (some people can't) that's a thing, and the green part of scallions is low-fodmap and I personally find them super oniony, and there's chives, but if you use them you mostly want to add them at the end since they're delicate and heat will pretty much wipe out any flavors. Scallion oil is also a thing that's very easy to make at home (and is also low fodmap, which I only mention to point out that it's lacking in most of the compounds that make onions onions).

But aside from a shockingly good super-shallotty mustard dressing my husband makes for fried tofu and roasted broccoli, and the occasional onion ring, I don't think onions are the end-all-be-all. If you want to experiment with augmenting the bit of caramelization onions bring to most recipes, you could assemble yourself an arsenal of:
- a pinch bowl or shaker of mixed brown and white sugar
- ghee, especially if you make it yourself and burn the shit out of it so it's actually clarified browned butter (I do this once a month to keep on the counter and I highly recommend it)
- maple syrup
- mix up a spice blend that's got smoked paprika in it, plus a chili powder of the heat level you desire (chipotle if you want another level of smokiness), cumin, and a little brown sugar
- liquid smoke (this is my big new evangelization, everyone should keep liquid smoke at hand)
- make sure you use enough salt, and if you're not using a flaky salt like kosher maybe upgrade
posted by Lyn Never at 7:25 AM on September 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hing doesn't really taste like onions but it's used exactly for this purpose -garlic and onions are contraindicated in some spiritual belief systems in India, otherwise a land of many onion - loving foods. Hing powder is extremely smelly, so keep it in glass - I've often found it in packets or plastic spice jars from India.
Another bottomy flavor that I think 'rounds out' a lot of stuff is mustard seed. It has nothing to do with onion flavor but if I were out of onion i might use that to balance out a dish. Indian cuisine has a technique of 'tempering' - basically, toasting or frying some spices in oil - and whole mustard seed turns into chewy little popped balls when treated this way.
posted by twoplussix at 7:27 AM on September 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Much like cooker girl is talking about above, I think your answer here depends on the cuisine and particular dish you're cooking.

For a lot of cuisines there's a base of aromatics that you start many dishes with. Some classic examples are a mirepoix for french food (onions, carrots, celery), a large swathe of China goes for scallions, ginger, and garlic, Creole food uses the holy trinity of onion, bell pepper and celery, basically every other defined food culture will have something like this. You often cook these first in some way and then add other ingredients to it, or they form the base of a signature sauce that flavors the star ingredient. They also, more often than not, include some kind of onion.

So what I'd do is figure out what cuisine the dish is sourced from, and check to see if the other aspects of that cuisine's aromatic base are in that recipe. Then, I'd increase the amounts of those ingredients to cover for the onion's absence. Maybe, if the onion is the only thing that's called to be browned or caramelized, I'd do that to the other aromatics at least partially. For example, in a Spanish sofrito base you've got garlic, onion, and tomato. But often you don't brown the tomato and garlic. I might increase the amounts of garlic and tomato and cook those according to the recipe, but also I might additionally broil some halved tomatoes to get some caramelized browned bits to incorporate that flavor into the finished dish.
posted by Mizu at 7:33 AM on September 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

I am also very, very sensitive to onions. I can bear about a teaspoon, though, and so for most savory/aromatics uses, ie start by onion/garlic in oil, I'll just use a very reduced amount, because it really isn't the same without it.

I'm also differentially sensitive. Cooked is always necessary -- I cannot do any raw onion, ever. I avoid red/white onions like the plague. A tsp of shallots or green onions is usually ok (in guac, for example). I can get away with more leek. Garlic is a decent addition and/or substitute in many cases.

We get Blue Apron once or so a month, and I was actually shocked at the times they'd send a WHOLE ONION and ... expect you to use it?! But that's happened a lot less lately, and I wonder whether there are enough onion-avoiders out there that they shifted their recipes.
posted by Dashy at 8:53 AM on September 28, 2018

If you’re still missing the flavor part, you can sprinkle some green onions or chives on your plate/dish right before you eat/serve.
posted by Neekee at 8:14 AM on September 30, 2018

Heya, Taste Cooking just posted an article and recipe about cooking without alliums.
posted by ftm at 10:35 AM on October 1, 2018

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