Cooking without Onions

October 11, 2015

Wait…what? Cooking without onions or garlic? Seriously?

I get this question a lot. Some people have a partner who hates all things onions and garlic; some have an allergy to these alliums or a medical condition like IBS that can be aggravated by these foods and some people live according to spiritual practices that prohibit the use of these aromatics.

Most of us can’t imagine cooking without onions, garlic, leeks, scallions and any other allium that brings such depth to the flavor of dishes. I think there is no better kitchen perfume than onions and garlic sweating in olive oil, but that’s me.

If you’re one of the many people (yes, many…) who don’t use alliums in cooking, are you doomed to a life of bland, boring dishes?

No way, baby. I’d never leave you in the wind.

First a bit of “why.” How did garlic and onions become so beloved that they are the basis of almost every savory dish we cook?

Since ancient Egypt and into ancient Rome and Greece, food was bland with grains, bread and their various versions of beer as the cornerstones. Then, as people are wont to do, they discovered a variety of local vegetables and beans and their diets expanded, but were still rather dull. The discovery and use of onions and garlic, growing wild and plentiful resulted in the creation of exciting and deeply flavored dishes. Garlic and onions became the basis of most dishes created through time as a result.

At first blush, garlic and onions are used in cooking as aromatics — foods that add a savory aroma as well as flavor to dishes. But they are more than just flavor. These vegetables and herbs all contain "organosulfur compounds, “ shown to possess antioxidant properties that help protect against health conditions such as heart disease and cancer.

If you must, or wish to cook without alliums, there are lots of options to make your dishes tasty with lots of depth of flavor. There are more aromatics than onions and garlic. Here are some tips for getting the most flavor out of your food:

Sauté carrots and celery for 2 to 4 minutes to pull every bit of flavor from them. They are aromatic in their own right.

Swap diced fennel for onions and garlic in any sauté to create a deliciously aromatic flavor.

Add a bit of tomato paste to a dish to move the flavor to new heights.

Roasted red bell pepper is my go-to for creating flavor when not using onions or garlic. I sauté diced red peppers for 2 to 4 minutes as the start to the dish.

Use great quality oils for cooking to ensure you create great flavor.

Using herbs, both dried and fresh, will infuse any dish aromatically. Remember that cooking with dried herbs results in an intense flavor while fresh herbs are more delicate in taste.

Just remember that there are more flavors in cooking than onions and garlic. Feel free to swap out any veggie to use in their place to create delicious dishes. There are no rules. You are limited only by what you can imagine.