Shallots vs. Onions: Which One Should You Use?

Have you ever found yourself ready to cook a recipe only to notice that pesky ingredient shallots lingering on the list? You have a pantry filled with red onions, yellow onions, and even some green onions in the fridge. So it really comes down to shallots vs. onions: do you really need to go to the grocery store to buy some? Or, could you just substitute another type of onion?

Don’t worry, you’re not alone. The shallots vs. onions debate has been a longstanding one, with people on both sides scratching their heads wondering if it matters. We take a closer look at the differences (and similarities) between these two ingredients to help you decide.

The Allium Family

The allium family includes more than 500 species of flowering plants. The bulbs of some of these plants become some of our favorite vegetables. Both onions and shallots are part of the overarching allium family, along with garlic, leeks, and chives. These vegetables are high in sulfur compounds, giving them that distinctive pungent flavor and enticing aroma. Those compounds also give alliums their health benefits, and over the years they’ve been known to have anti-inflammatory effects as well as lowering blood pressure.

You can eat allium vegetables raw or cooked, although their flavor is completely different. Raw alliums usually have a sharp, almost spicy bite that can be tempered with pickling or by soaking them in cold water. Cooked alliums deepen and become sweet, especially when caramelized.

Allium vegetables are a staple in French cuisine, where the classic mirepoix vegetable mix comprises of equal parts leek, onion, celery, carrot. Cooking onions and garlic together is the beginning of almost every sauce and soup, as their flavor deepens and enriches your finished product.

All About Onions

onions vs shallots
The Kitchn

Onions can be further categorized as sweet onions, spring onions (the less common name for scallions), and pearl onions. They can vary from very sweet to super pungent, small to medium to large. Some onions are eaten fresh with their sprouts (like green onions) whereas others are dried so the papery exterior can be removed (as in red, yellow, or white onions).

My favorite onion recipe is definitely French onion soup. There is no way you could substitute shallots for this dish! The bulkiness of large onions makes up the body of the soup (although you could spend the time to chop many small onions if you wish). When the pungent onions cook down, they become super soft and sweet. Add some beef broth and cheese and you’ll swear you’re eating a restaurant meal! Get the recipe here.

Let’s Chat Shallots

onions vs shallots
Cooking by the Book

Like their cousins, garlic, shallots grow as a bulb divided into cloves. Although, these days, it’s not uncommon to see single cloves for sale at the grocery store. Their flavor is sweet and mild, with a hint of garlic flavor, making them a favorite for professional chefs. Raw shallots, in particular, are very popular because they don’t have the characteristic bite of onions.

While you can make pickled onions, I find pickled shallots to be a particular delicacy. They are already super mild when raw, so all you need to add is some acidic champagne vinegar and a pinch of salt and sugar. They’re perfect for sandwiches, salads, or egg dishes. Get the recipe here.

How to Substitute

For most recipes (French onion soup and pickled shallots excepted), you can easily make substitutions. So don’t worry too much about the shallots vs. onions debate! The general rule of thumb (because of size) is to use three small shallots in place of one small onion.

If you’re substituting onions for shallots, try to chop them very finely. Remember that shallots are much smaller than onions, so you’ll want to compensate for their thin layers. If your recipe calls for raw shallots, soak your chopped onions in a bowl of cold water to remove some of the harshnesses.

To substitute shallots for onions, you won’t really need to make too many changes. Shallots are milder than onions, so you may find that the recipe misses some of its characteristic punch.

Ready to taste the difference? Try out this oven-baked blooming onion or salmon burgers with capers and shallots.

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