Genius Recipes

The Genius Vegan Trick for Turning Vegetables Into a Heavy Cream Substitute

A brighter (and vegan) alternative to cream—for all your soups, sauces, and sides.

August 19, 2019

Every week in Genius Recipes—often with your help!—Food52 Creative Director and lifelong Genius-hunter Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that will change the way you cook.

Today: Here's a light, bright, totally and completely vegan alternative to cream. Substitute it in every soup, sauce, side, and creamy-savory dish in your life. 

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Even if you love cream; even if you love it so much that you plunk it into gratins and soups in long, loose-wristed pours; even if you are a person who drowns even their kale in cream, which is a true power play, if we've ever heard one—even you are about to fall for this low-fat, vegan cream alternative. Cream avoiders, you'll love it too. 

That's because this "cream," dreamed up by Grant Lee Crilly (cofounder of ChefSteps, the James Beard Award-winning offshoot of the Modernist Cuisine world, and purveyor of smart kitchen tools like the joule sous vide machine), is made out of little more than roasted onions, pureed until they swirl together into a glossy cream-like substance. There's some lemon juice, olive oil, and salt to season it, but otherwise the backbone of sautéed onion—the start to so many good things—carries and propels forward the whole operation. "This is pretty frickin genius," Food52er mrslarkin said when she sent it to me. "And now I want a bowl of onion puree." 


Though this is not exactly a cream substitute—you'd never mistake one for the other—it might be an even better alternative to all things savory and silky. Because as much as some of us love cream for adding richness and body, we've found that it can inadvertently wash out all other nearby flavors (as seen in the classic last-minute soup-correcting problem). 

Onion puree is brighter and better, as promised—instead of obscuring flavors, it enhances them, like a well-made stock (or mirepoix or soffrito). Onion purée won't pile on existing ingredients like a layer of spackle; instead, it acts as the ultimate multiplier—a deepener of flavor. It does wonders for filling out thickness and general oomph too, in a way that cream has been known to do.

ChefSteps, naturally, uses a Vitamix to get pro-level silkiness, but you can employ whatever blender you have. If you want your puree to be perfectly smooth, just pass it through a fine-mesh strainer after blending.

Beyond showing it off in soups, Crilly wrote to me, "You can add swap it in for cream in your risotto, add to pasta with fresh herbs for a healthier, brighter, but still decadent-tasting dish, whip it into your mashed potatoes, or use it in a quiche to lighten up the base." Or, call mrslarkin's bluff and eat a straight bowl of it. (Try doing that with cream.)

ChefSteps' Onion Cream

Adapted slightly from

3 large onions (sweet or regular)
Vegetable oil
Salt, to taste
Lemon juice, to taste
Olive oil, to taste

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

A few Genius recipes that gladly welcome onion cream:

J. Kenji López-Alt's 15-Minute Creamy (Vegan) Tomato Soup

This soup is quick, comforting, and 100% vegan, thanks to another unexpected ingredient (hint: not onion this time!). To make the soup even thicker and creamier, keep the vegan streak alive and introduce a dollop of zingy, velvety onion cream. 

Trent Pierce's Miso Creamed Kale

By replacing the heavy cream in this dish with 1/2 cup of onion puree (and the couple tablespoons of butter with vegan butter or a mild coconut oil), it becomes entirely plant-based. Miso, soy sauce, and vermouth would work excellently with a sweet-savory onion flavor. A few readers even used the creamed kale as a sauce for pasta—be like these readers, and thin out with additional onion cream as needed.

Al Forno's Penne with Cream and 5 Cheeses

If the prospect of using cream plus five types of cheese in a single baked pasta makes you a little wary, 1) fear not, as it's delicious, but 2) feel free to use onion cream instead for a lighter (but equally creamy) finished dish. This pasta is so riffable, you can easily add any veg and herbs of your choice, too. 

And as for sweet dishes, or baked goods, where you need a hint of cream? You won't want to use your onion puree there, tempting as it may sound. You can, though, leverage one of these seven clever substitutes instead

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Perhaps something perfect for beginners? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]. Thanks to Food52er mrslarkin for this one!

All photos by James Ransom.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Michi
  • Amazonwannabe
  • Heather Sullivan
    Heather Sullivan
  • Bec
  • thirteenJ
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Michi September 19, 2018
This could be done in my Thermomix too! Off to give it a go!
Amazonwannabe October 16, 2017
This looks fabulous! I'm wanting a cream sub to go in a crockpot curry, not just to pour in at the end. Would the onion cream work for slow cooker dish?
Heather S. July 4, 2015
I used this concept for an alfredo sauce for a vegan pasta - blended with brewer's yeast and tofu - really good, amazingly.
Bec June 14, 2015
I love this idea! Nice to see an alternative that doesn't involve nut milks or coconut cream - which I love but changes the flavour of soups.
thirteenJ June 6, 2015
Can't tell you how happy I am to see this! I am allergic to tree nuts and it's sooo frustrating that most "cream" subs involve almonds or cashews.
veredmom June 5, 2015
Has anyone tried freezing this yet?
thirdfloorkitchen May 31, 2015
I'm ready to take my onions out of the oven in about 10 minutes. The aroma of those burnished beauties is amazing!
inabech May 17, 2015
Sounds great. Do you think that this recipe could be frozen successfully? If so, one could freeze in a cube tray and use as necessary. :-)
Auburn M. May 17, 2015
Zackly what I was thinking. I'm going to have to test that idea very soon.
Stephanie May 11, 2015
Jenny B. May 4, 2015
Can't wait to try this! But please, tell us what is that gloriously lovely green soup?
Robin May 5, 2015
That I don't know, I haven't read that one yet
Kristen M. May 5, 2015
The soup was a variation on this!
Robin May 3, 2015
Omg! I love this site!!! The funny thing is , is how I learned about it! I had a question about a measurement. I had figured it out , however, you're the only one that answered my question! Ever since, I have seen amazing, yet , simple recipes that I can actually do myself! I usually don't have to go buy some different things that I would normally not have in my kitchen! I love it! Now, I don't mind the question "what is for dinner " ! Thank you so much!
Sharon May 3, 2015
Okay, now you've got my attention. THIS I gotta see! This is a perfect kitchen project for a lazy Sunday like today. I'm on it! Get back to you later with the results.
jennifer May 2, 2015
Lucas May 2, 2015
Gal April 29, 2015
Walla Walla and Vidalia are the most common kinds of sweet onions.
Vojta April 29, 2015
ChefSteps April 29, 2015
Vojta May 1, 2015
jennifer April 29, 2015
Sounds great - can't wait to try it! But what's a sweet onion, besides Cippolini?
Kristen M. May 1, 2015
Vidalia onions are a common kind of sweet onions, but I've also made this with regular yellow onions successfully!