The Ultimate Low-FODMAP Guide to Flavor without Onion and Garlic
If you've read tips on replacing onion and garlic before, rest-assured that I'm not here to repeat the conventional wisdom. For example, I won't tell you to just use scallion tops for everything, or rush out and buy asafoetida, the pungent Indian spice.
There's nothing wrong with the usual cooking advice aimed at FODMAPers, I just don't think it tells the whole story. There are other ways to cook incredibly flavorful food besides replacements that don't quite measure up to the real thing.
And when it comes to asafoetida as a substitute for onion flavor, I'll bust that myth right now:
Skip it. It's not worth it.
Years before I learned about the FODMAP diet, I had a jar of asafoetida that I played with alongside all my other traditional Indian spices. (Remember, I'm a foodie who used to do recipe development for a living.)
Always used together with other spices, and at only 1/4 tsp for a recipe that serves 4, it mingles with the other ingredients to add a savory background funk.
But add a little too much to your spaghetti sauce for example, and suddenly your lovely sauce stinks like over-cooked cabbage. Unless you're cooking traditional Indian food, I say leave it on the shelf.
How to Replace Onion and Garlic (and it's only temporary!)
So where does that leave us? Actually, it leaves us smack in the middle of a flavor tornado. In other words, you have a LOT of options to boost the flavor of just about any recipe. I'll still tell you my best strategies for replacing onion and garlic, but I'll also explain how to build flavor in other ways.
It's scary, I totally get. I was devastated to think that I couldn't cook with onion and garlic when I first learned about the FODMAP diet. We are taught to believe that these ingredients are our saviors from bland, flavorless food. But I swear on my pug's fuzzy head that giving them up is not a big deal.
And know this: Many people, including me and the clients I've worked with, learn that they can eat garlic, onion or both in moderation after testing them in the reintroduction phase of the FODMAP diet. That's why it's crucial to go through the testing process.
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How to Replace Garlic
Let's start with this pesky little minx. There's nothing else that tastes quite like garlic, and that's why garlic-infused oil is so fabulous. FODMAPs are water soluble, but not fat soluble. So when garlic cloves are cooked in olive oil on low heat, the flavor transfers over, but the FODMAPs don't.
Here's the trick for maximum flavor:
Use garlic oil at the very end of the cooking process, or as a finishing oil at the table. If you use it to sautee or roast, the high heat can damage the oil, diminishing the flavor. But drizzle it on that spaghetti bolognese right before you dig in, and you've got an instant garlic infusion!
Try Fresh Ginger
Clearly it's not the same thing, but since it measures about the same and is often used together with garlic (think Asian and Indian dishes), it can give a lot of recipes that sharp, aromatic boost.
Pesto is a perfect example, and I made a version for the CBK cookbook where I essentially swapped ginger for the garlic. It won't fool anyone, but that's not the point--the pesto tastes great.
How to Replace Onion
1) Leek Tops: They take some effort to clean (more on that in a second). However. They're absolutely delicious and a better onion sub than scallions, especially when you need to add them at the beginning of the cooking process. They have a slightly sweeter, slightly more herbaceous flavor than onions.
Like scallions, the white part has high FODMAP content, but the green part is low. You'll want to trim off a few inches of the green part because they're tougher at the top. I personally eat a little of the light green part, but everyone should decide how much to eat based on personal sensitivity.
Leeks are grown in the ground and dirt gets trapped inside all those layers. I have an easy system for washing them, so I made a video showing you exactly how to do it. I also show you what part of the leek to eat!
2) Scallion Tops: Yes, they're great, but the flavor doesn't really come through unless you add them raw at the end of cooking, or as a garnish. Just like leeks, you'll want to eat the dark and possibility some of the light green part. Here's what I mean:
Since it's difficult to make up the volume of an onion with scallions, I recommend using leeks if your recipe calls for 1 cup of onion or more. Or you could get a little more creative...
3) Grated Carrots and Parsnips: Whether you use them together or separately, these veggies are perfect when recipes call for a LOT of onions, especially soups and stews. Grate them in a food processor and saute them until lightly browned, just like onions.
4) Thinly Sliced Cabbage: Stir-fried or sauteed cabbage is sweet and delicious. Cook it in a hot skillet for about 10 minutes, and you can add it to soups, braises or casseroles in place of the onion.
5) Nutritional Yeast: Weird but effective! This form of deactivated yeast has a cheesy, nutty quality that vegans love as a replacement for cheese. To my tastebuds, it's just plain savory, and slightly funky in a good way.
Because the texture is similar to a ground spice, I like adding it to creamy dressings, sauces, and soups. When I use it to make low-FODMAP ranch dressing (with lactose-free yogurt, lemon juice, chives, and scallions) it adds an extra layer of flavor that you might mistake for onion powder.
6) The Trinity, FODMAP-Style: In Cajun and Creole cooking, the trinity is onion, celery and bell pepper. In French cooking, it's called mirepoix and consists of onion, carrot and celery. These combinations of ingredients are used as a flavor base in countless recipes.
My FODMAP version can be used to replace the trinity in any recipe, but you can also use it to replace the typical onion/garlic base. Here it is:
1 part chopped leek
1 part finely chopped or grated carrot
1/2 part chopped celery
Celery is moderately high in mannitol. But if you use 1/2 cup chopped celery in a recipe serving at least 4, your serving size will be in the low-FODMAP range. If celery is a problem food for you, replace it with red bell pepper or fennel. The FODMAP Trinity is flexible! And of course, you may find that mannitol is not a trigger at all when you do the reintroduction process.
How to Create Incredible Flavor with Umami (a.k.a., never eat bland food again)
If you want the food you cook to be crave-worthy and lip-smackingly delicious, umami is your ticket. This goes for any type of cooking, whether you have a dozen different dietary restrictions or you can eat anything you like.
Umami is the fifth taste (along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter), but it's the one to rule them all. It's an almost-addictive savory flavor that occurs naturally in foods that are slow-cooked, caramelized, aged, or fermented, but also in cherry tomatoes, sweet corn, and mushrooms.
The flavor comes from glutamate, an amino acid, which usually requires some form of cooking or aging to release it. Adding umami-rich foods or enhancing umami with your cooking techniques will build that savory flavor whether or not you use onion and garlic in your recipe.
Umami Packed Low-FODMAP Foods
Parmesan and other aged cheeses
Soy sauce and tamari
Cured meat (prosciutto, serrano ham, speck)
A good stock made with caramelized and slow cooked meat and vegetables
Dashi, the Japanese stock made from kombu (dried kelp)
For some of these flavor-bombs, you'll want to stick to the low-FODMAP serving sizes as listed on the Monash App. For example a low-FODMAP serving of sun-dried tomatoes is 8 grams (or about 2 halves), but that is plenty if you chop it up and add it to a salad, quinoa bowl, or pasta.
Glutamate naturally found in foods is different from MSG, the processed flavor additive that causes allergy-like reactions in some people. Keep in mind that glutamate is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein. In other words, healthy stuff! While some food makers might add MSG to soy sauce or other condiments, you can easily find MSG-free versions of everything on this list.
How to Release Umami in Cooking
Raw meat and shellfish is full of glutamate, but you need to cook it to release the umami flavor. The same goes for many vegetables. Here's how to make the most of it:
1) Roast It - Roasting is amazing because not only does it let you cook, say a pork shoulder, simply and efficiently, it takes long enough to release those amino acids and slowly brown the meat.
The same goes for veggies: Roasted zucchini is about 100 times tastier than steamed, right? It's the caramelization. To make beautiful, deep-golden veggies, be sure to dry them well after washing--excess water will prevent browning.
Pro Tip: The type of cookware you use matters too. Choose dark-colored baking sheet and roasting pans. They absorb more heat, encouraging browning.
2) Caramelize It - Roasting isn't the only way to create caramelization. Instead of sauteeing veggies on high heat until just tender, take a few extra minutes and turn the heat to medium.
Use a cast iron or stainless steel pan (nonstick pans don't caramelize well because food needs to stick a bit to build that color and flavor) and add a thin layer of oil. Cooking veggies this way allows them to brown slowly and releases the natural sugars and umami.
3) Don't move it or crowd it - This is the golden rule when you're cooking protein in a skillet. If you want it to brown, don't crowd the pan, even it means cooking your food in two batches. Crowding produces steam, which is the enemy of browning. Resist the urge to push and stir foods like shrimp and scallops. Let them cook until the bottom side is deep golden, then flip and repeat.
4) Braise It - This applies to stocks and stews. The goal of braising is to partially cover your protein with liquid and slowly cook it so the flavor can build before the texture becomes tough or chewy.
Pro Tip: Never let the braising liquid come to a boil--this will cook the meat too fast. Fuss over your braise and adjust the heat until the liquid maintains a slow to moderate simmer. That means a few bubbles every 1 to 2 seconds.
I hope you got a bunch of new ideas from this post, but remember these key takeaways:
1) It is so do-able to leave yourself and anyone else drooling over your low-FODMAP meals with onion and garlic nowhere in sight.
2) You probably don't need to permanently eliminate onion and garlic from your life. It's crucial to test both of these foods (members of the Oligosaccharide group, the "O" in FODMAP) by doing the reintroduction process.
If you want to explore more about starting the FODMAP Diet, there's a post for that: What are FODMAPs? The Complete Non-Techy Guide