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I have a lamb stew recipe which I'm trying to adapt for my sister, who can't eat onions, garlic, or other alliums. Usually when I need to substitute for garlic or onion, I use a tiny amount of asafoetida, which works well enough for that strong alium taste. However, that's not the role of the onion in this stew, and I'm a little stumped for how to substitute it out.

For starters, this stew only has three ingredients: lamb stew meat, onion, and water (plus a host of spices). It simmers for about 2-3 hours, during which point the onion dissolves completely and the tough meat becomes tender. (It's then served over rice; not important to the narrative.)

The onion serves to add a touch of sweetness, which mellows out the lamb meat. It also provides a slight thickness to the liquid. I tried omitting the onion entirely, and the end result was nearly harsh -- it's definitely something I want to try and substitute out instead of simply omit.

Asafoetida is a decent substitute for the garlicy/oniony taste, but that's not really the primary characteristic I'm going for here -- I'm looking for that mild sweetness that shows up after you cook onions low and slow until they dissolve into nothing. For thickness, I figure I can blend in minute quantities of corn starch until I reach the desired consistency -- but I can't figure out what to use for the sweetness.

Any ideas?

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  • 15
    Might I suggest, that if your sister is allergic to aliums, you maybe should consider making a different recipe?
    – FuzzyChef
    Nov 14 at 3:37
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    I've stopped making so many things because of this allergy I'd rather start adjusting instead. Something like pollo al ajillo isn't going to be substitutable, but this seems doable on its face. Nov 14 at 4:54
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    Would (small) Turnips not serve? They also become sweet when thoroughly cooked and would contribute similarly to the texture...
    – PcMan
    Nov 14 at 17:45
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    Molasses or brown sugar? Or maybe heavily browned capsicum/bell pepper? Nov 14 at 23:16
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    Friendly reminder not to answer in the comments. Nov 15 at 14:14
36

You might try carrot. It is a common ingredient, often used in Italian cuisine, for example, to counteract the acidity in tomatoes, when making a sauce. In my example it is grated, then simmered with the sauce. It won't break down as much as onion, but could add the subtle sweetness that you are missing, and if finely grated, I doubt you would notice it texturally.

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  • I'm going to try GdD's suggestion of honey first, since it won't affect the texture at all. But I'll try the carrots alternative after. Do you know what kind of ratio I'd be going for? 1:1 shredded carrot substitute to finely chopped onion original? Nov 14 at 20:52
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    I would recommend adding some celeriac and/or parsnip and/or parsley root. They all become tender and a little sweet and if you press them through a sieve after you remove the meat, you get a light consistency and that extra flavor
    – jmk
    Nov 14 at 22:33
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    @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas I would begin with 1/2 to one carrot. I typically use 1/2 for a pot of tomato sauce, made with a 28oz can of tomato. That recipe also has onion, so maybe go for 1 carrot to start.
    – moscafj
    Nov 14 at 23:28
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    @jmk that seems to be an answer of itself. Nov 14 at 23:39
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    If you grate the carrots they should break down to almost no texture as well
    – Hobbamok
    Nov 16 at 9:39
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For thickening you have many options, I'd suggest rather than cornstarch that you make a roux of flour and butter as that will give the opportunity for adding flavor as well. For stews I like to make a medium roux in larger quantities than I may need and then set it aside, adding it later to the right consistency towards the end of the cooking process. The browning of the roux adds some of the flavor you lose by removing the onion.

Onions add a sweetness with some complexity to it, a bit of richness, so I would suggest trying a drop of honey, or less processed sugar like Demerara. If you don't have that a sprinkle of a 50:50 white sugar to light brown sugar ought to work as well, just don't overdo it no matter what sweetener you use - if you add too much it will taste all wrong. I'd err on the side of too little than too much.

Another approach may be to add some potato in and let them cook long enough to break down, the starch ought to thicken and will add some sweetness as well. I'd try that on a small scale first to see if it works, you could test it with some beef stock without using any other ingredients.

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    Yeah I usually would prefer a roux, but my sister is also celiac and I've not had luck with the various gf flours I've tried. Your idea with honey sounds interesting, I'll try that the next go around. Nov 14 at 16:51
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    @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas I used up the end of a bag of rice flour in roux and it worked perfectly. Maybe there's a question in the trouble you were having with GF flours (note that some have gum added to make them a better substitute for baking; those might not be good options)
    – Chris H
    Nov 15 at 13:01
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    @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas I've had success in various recipes with gf flour mixtures (premixed from different gf flours). Works well for pancakes (and waffles, muffins), could be worth a try in roux.
    – D. Kovács
    Nov 15 at 16:43
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Turnips.

But use small, young ones, as the large older ones are woody and give off a bit to much of a sulphurous taste. (you want some, to match the onion, but there's enough and there's way too much)

Turnip will mostly dissolve into the broth, making a smooth and creamy but not gelatinous consistency. It should be of minor to mild sweetness, without at all overwhelming the lamb's flavor.

While not the direct substitution requested, this recipe would work well with some Carrot, and some Celery too.

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Many cuisines have some backbone to contribute flavor and other things like sweetness. Aliums are a classical part of many of them, but other ingredients usually are added to the alium backbone: Cajun--> bell pepper and celery, French--> carrot and celery, and so on. I'd go with the carrot suggestion but add celery and bell pepper all pretty finely diced and caramelized in the pan first to try and maximise sweetness; you can also look at cooking in some tomato paste in the pan with it (pinçage) The classic French ratio is 1 carrot: 2 onion : 1 celery to try and help with your substitution.

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  • Interesting. This is actually a Persian recipe -- do you know what sort of 'backbone' is used in that type of cuisine? Nov 15 at 2:10
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    @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas I don't know much about Persian cuisine, or whether it has an equivalent of a French mirepoix, Cajun trinity, or Indian ginger-garlic paste, but many Persian dishes have historically used dried fruits (especially raisins/sultanas and dates). If you chopped those finely you might get the effect you want
    – Tristan
    Nov 15 at 14:56
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    @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas I'd liken Persian cuisine to that of any "Ottoman" or "Middle-Eastern" (Lebanese, Egyptian, etc.), even though I'd likely to be smashed into the nose by anybody coming from any if these places for this assessment :) This would mean using onions and carrots as such a 'backbone' would be the default.
    – D. Kovács
    Nov 16 at 7:53
4

For sweetness, dried fruits: raisins, dates apricots etc. seem cuisine appropriate. Fresh or dried apples might work as well too (I find that they compliment onions, so maybe they'd work as a substitute). Possibly combine these with a vegetable, carrot or turnip, to provide balance. These are in addition to the asefetida.

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but onion doesn't only add sweetness due to sugars that it contains, it also makes meat softer, hence it's broad adoption in meat marinades for shish kebabs.

I would try beetroot/vinegar combo. Beetroot for sweetness (also gives natural color), vinegar to make meat soft. Experiment with quantities, but don't go over the edge with vinegar.

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  • Hm. Since there's a lot of red pepper and turmeric that might hide the red from the beetroot somewhat. Beets do have an unfortunate tendency to taste like dirt though. Nov 16 at 14:15
  • I never tasted dirt, to be honest, so cannot comment, really. If cooked properly, beetroots are delicious and are used in «high cuisine» (expensive restaurants, that is for us, mere mortals) and «molecular cuisine» (even spookier, some alien tech coupled with mad marketing) to mimick almost anything - meat, fish, some vegs etc. Nov 17 at 13:45
  • I think it's one of those genetic things -- like how some people think cilantro tastes like soap. Even in fancy restaurants there's a dirt taste; i know of several people who have the same opinion. Don't get me wrong -- i like beets ... I'm just trying not to change the taste of the end product. Nov 17 at 15:43
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I include redcurrant jelly in a lot of dishes to add a bit of sweetness, and now that I've had to cut alliums largely out of my diet (due to IBS not allergies) it's one of my main sources of sweetness in many dishes.

Depending on cuisine though I might also use honey, sugar (white, or darker depending on what I need, or potentially palm sugar or jaggery instead), grated carrot, or finely chopped dried fruit (e.g. sultanas or dates).

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I'm surprised nobody mentioned alcohol so far. I have seen the explanation that sugar and alcohol combination softens the meat (actually sugar softens, but alcohol apparently improves sugar penetration into the meat). Unfortunately I've read about it in a different language, but sugar+alcohol seems to be a popular combination for marinating meat. I assume you'd want to marinate it for a couple of hours before cooking, and all the alcohol will disappear during cooking.

P.S.: I assume vinegar might work in a similar way to the alcohol

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  • Interesting. What kind of alcohol were you thinking? My first thought would be vodka or rakija. Nov 16 at 16:21
  • @RoddyoftheFrozenPeas the recipe I've seen was a Japaneese recipe for boiled chicken breasts, that makes it moist and soft, instead of dry and stringy. Here it is: a breast is marinated in 2 spoons of sake/white wine for 10 min, than add 2-3g of sugar, a bit more wine and leave for 30 min. Boil the water, turn it off and put the chicken in a thermoresistent bag for an hour. White wine can already be quite sweet, so you'd want to adjust the amount of sugar, but I believe vodka and rakija should both work well. Might have some effect on the taste if you have a flavoured rakija ;)
    – elena
    Nov 16 at 16:54

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