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Cooking Without Onions or Garlic

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Updated January 21, 2009

Cooking Without Onions and Garlic:

Onions and garlic are two of the most commonly used alliums, a group of closely related plants in the lily family. (Leeks, scallions, and shallots are other alliums with culinary uses.) While they are not among the more common food allergens, there are reported cases of IgE-mediated food allergies to alliums. In addition to those who avoid garlic due to IgE-mediated food allergies, many people find that these foods irritate conditions like irritable bowel syndrome or that they have food intolerances that can be triggered by these foods. Cooking without them can be difficult. Here are some strategies.

How Garlic and Onions Are Used in Cooking:

Garlic and onions are often used in cooking as aromatics -- foods that add a savory aroma and flavor to other dishes. They're found in cuisines from around the world, making it difficult to avoid them by sticking to foods from a certain geographical area. Often, garlic and onions are added at the very beginning of cooking to mellow their flavors before building a sauce, soup, or other complex dish.

Leaving Garlic and Onions Out:

Can you just leave the garlic and onions out of a recipe? Sometimes. You'll usually get acceptable results -- it's not the same as leaving eggs out of a cake. However, most people would find some recipes unacceptably bland. Consider adapting the recipe with a substitute rather than simply dropping the alliums if:

  • Onions or garlic are the only flavoring in the recipe;
  • Onions or garlic are a major part of the recipe; or
  • Onions or garlic are used raw or lightly cooked.

In these situations, the flavor of onion or garlic may be critical to a delicious dish. Most of the time, though, you can find a good substitute.

Aromatics Beyond Onions and Garlic:

No unrelated vegetable has quite the same taste as onions or garlic. But some aromatics that may be safe for your allergies are good options for cooking:

  • Fennel has a licorice-like taste but onion-like texture. Try it with chicken or fish.
  • Celery is among the most common aromatics.
  • Bell peppers are often used in Cajun cooking. Green peppers and celery are a good base for rice dishes or savory stews.
  • Carrots are used as an aromatic in French cooking in combination with celery.
  • Celeriac, or celery root, is the knobby root of one variety of celery. Peeled and diced, it can be used as an aromatic in sauces or stews.

Herbs and Spices for Onion and Garlic-Free Cooking:

Garlic chives, an herb with a garlicky flavor, are an obvious substitute, but be careful if you're managing a true food allergy: chives are in the allium family. Ask your allergist before eating them.

Here are some herbs and spices you may find useful:

  • Peppercorns: white, pink, or Szechuan pepper can add different flavors to your cooking.
  • Cumin's distinctive taste that may work well in some recipes, especially where garlic is used raw.
  • Horseradish, freshly grated, can add some of the pungent notes you might otherwise lack.
  • Ginger and galangal have distinctive flavors but may be useful in stir-fries as aromatics.

Garlic Powder and Garlic Salt:

Garlic powder and garlic salt are made from dehydrated, finely ground garlic. Onion powder and salt, likewise, are made from onions. These products are not suitable for anyone with a true allergy to either of these foods. However, some people who do not have true allergies to these foods and avoid garlic and onions due to gastrointestinal upset find that these products do not aggravate their symptoms, especially if used in small amounts. Ask your gastroenterologist or doctor before trying another form of a food that has caused painful symptoms in the past.

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