Onions are one of the favorite foods of picky eaters to pick on, maligned for their pungent scent and taste. Of course, many a cook knows that once an onion is cooked it changes to a wonderfully sweet and savory flavoring agent and would never dream of cooking without it. And let’s not even get started about how many dishes would just not be the same without a healthy dose of garlic!
Unfortunately, though, in testing for trigger foods during the FODMAP challenge phase, I found that garlic and onions are no longer my friends. Well, to be honest, they weren’t being friendly for the last good while, I just didn’t realize it. They were one of the first foods we chose to challenge because of how important they were in our cooking, and it was a sad realization that they would no longer be welcome in our kitchen (at least not for anything I’d been eating).
Onions and garlic (along with leeks, shallots, and other members of the allium family) contain fructans in levels too high for many folks with IBS to process. (This is, incidentally, the same FODMAP that is present in wheat, barley, and rye.)
So, how does a former chef go without onions and garlic in her kitchen?
She doesn’t. Not completely at least.
First of all, green onions (scallions) are safe if only the green tops are used. Thus, we buy at least one bunch of green onions a week, sometimes two. A side benefit to using green onions is that they’re even easier to prep, sometimes I just use the kitchen shears rather than a knife and cutting board. By this same logic, the usually-discarded tops of leeks can also be used and they are very nice in stir-frys and chunky soups. Now, they do add color to the dish (which isn’t always a bad thing) but sometimes you want them to not be so obvious but you still want that onion flavor.
Asa-what-ida? Asafoetida is something I’d first encountered back in one of the Indian Cooking Challenges I participated in, as certain sects in India require diets to be allium-free. This powdered latex (so not the best choice for those with a latex allergy, I’m guessing) comes from a perennial herb common to Afganistan and India, Ferula, and has a very strong smell that’s kinda hard to describe. But in food, especially if it’s allowed to cook a little in some warm oil, it tastes remarkably like garlic and onions. This makes it a perfect addition to meatloaf or burgers where you want to make sure the flavor carries through. Just remember that a little goes a long way. A couple of dashes from the container (which should only have a very small hole in the top or bottom) is enough for a pound of meat.
Another surprise substitute that really works for onion is a small turnip shredded into your soup. We tried this with a New England-style Clam Chowder with impressive results. If turnips are available and there are no other borderline FODMAPs (foods that are safe in limited quantities only, as are many of the “allowed” fruits and vegetables, but can become triggers if a lot is ingested) in a dish, I’ll happily grate one into the dish for that peppery flavor that might otherwise be missing.
As for garlic, which we really would not want to live without, there’s another cool thing about FODMAPs it helps to know: fructans are water-soluble, but not fat-soluble. Meaning, you can use infused oils with no problem!
On an as-needed basis you could cut a clove of garlic into large chunks, let it saute in your oil of choice for a few moments and then remove the garlic chunks and continue on with your cooking, getting the flavor without the fructans. (You can do this with quartered onions, too, by the way.) We could do this but it seems wasteful and time-consuming to me, so we just buy garlic-infused olive oil at the store, easy as that.
Can you make your own infused oil? Absolutely. BUT (and this is a kind of big caveat, so please pay attention) you must be very careful how you prepare the oil (cook the garlic in hot oil for a prescribed time) and store it properly (in the fridge) to avoid botulism poisoning. Like all things grown in the ground, there is the possibility of botulinum spores to be on the food. The spores need warm temperatures and an air-free environment to do their dirty deeds, and that’s just what an infused oil provides. While it’s rare to meet all the specific requirements for the toxins to become active and dangerous, it’s not a chance I’m willing to take when there are commercial products available that are safer.
Granted, I seldom find a bottle of garlic-infused olive oil for less than $10 for 8 oz, but the good news is that these oils tend to be strong, so a little goes a long way in a dish. YOu can also cut it with a bit of regular olive oil if what your wanting is to brush it onto bread, etc.
Keeping onion and garlic out of my diet means being very wary of most soups and stocks (onion is almost always included) as well as bullion cubes and soup bases. Many sauces and condiments have one or both of them in there, and I’ve found that it doesn’t take much to set my system off. The other thing you have to really watch for with onion and garlic are your friendly neighborhood grocery store spice blends. Man do they like to sneak these flavorings in any number of products we would normally buy. Thankfully, making your own spice blends without onion or garlic powder is a very simple enterprise and can be done in batches or as needed. We make our own curry powder blend, our own taco seasoning, etc. and the quality of our dinners hasn’t suffered one bit. While you can include asafoetida in your mixes, I would caution against it only because the powder can really overpower the scent of other ingredients. Instead, put a note on your at-home-spice-blend to add a dash of it to your meal when you prepare it and get better results.
Making the transition to a Low-FODMAP lifestyle hasn’t been easy, but finding good substitutions and work-arounds has made it less difficult than we initially anticipated.