They may be from the same family but, just like siblings, there are a few distinctions.

By Patricia S York
January 26, 2020

Have you ever stood at the produce bin at the grocery store, a yellow onion in one hand and a shallot in the other, and wondered about the difference between the two? They appear to be similar; can you just substitute one for the other? Onions and shallots, as well as garlic leeks, and chives, are all from the same family of “alliums” and have much in common. They are quite hardy and grow from fall until late spring. While they are both used mainly as seasonings, there are a few differences between shallots and onions.

How to Identify an Onion

Just in case they are not labeled at the farmers’ market, here is how to spot an onion. Each onion grows as an individual bulb. They have a smooth, papery skin that, when peeled off, reveals multiple layers and rings of the vegetable. An onion’s texture is crunchy when raw, crisp when fried, and soft when cooked down. Onions come in a wide range of colors, from pure white to deep purple, and sizes, from tiny pearl onions to those as big as a softball. You may even come across the flattened cippolini, an onion out of Italy. The most common types of onions found at the grocery stores, however, are yellow, red, white, and the long, thin green onions.

How Does an Onion Taste?

Each type of onion has its own specific flavor and aroma, with characteristics ranging from mild and sweet to strong and tear-inducing. If a recipe simply calls for an onion, it usually means a standard yellow onion. With their balanced flavor that is neither too sharp or too sweet, yellow onions are all-purpose, versatile, and can be used in almost any dish. Similar to yellow onions in flavor but not as sharp, red onions are characterized by a purplish-red papery skin and a pinkish-white flesh. They are most commonly used in non-cooked dishes, such as salads, salsas and sandwiches because of their relatively mild, sweet flavor. With their all-white flesh, white onions have a sharper and more pungent flavor than yellow ones. They can either be cooked or diced and added raw to salads and salsas. Green onions, typically referred to as scallions, are harvested while their shoots are still young and green and sold with the shoots attached. For this reason alone, green onions are never confused with a shallot. Their mild flavor makes them ideal for topping salads and soups, or as a garnish on dishes like stir-fry.

How to Identify a Shallot

It is easy to confuse a shallot for an onion because it looks like an oblong shaped onion. But while an onion grows individually, shallots, like garlic, grow in clusters on a plant. A shallot will also reveal cloves when peeled, rather than rings. Their skin color can vary between golden brown, red, or gray, while the flesh is usually creamy white with a hint of color similar to that of the skin.

How Does a Shallot Taste?

Shallots are a little sweeter than regular onions and have a more subtle flavor. They are good used in raw applications where you want an oniony flavor without too much punch, such as in salads and vinaigrettes, , or in slow roasted or braised dishes, where their sweetness can enhance a dish without watering it down.

Can They Be Used Interchangeably?

While both onions and shallots give an oniony flavor, they are not always interchangeable. If used as an enhancement, such as in a salad dressing and measured by the teaspoon, you can swap them out with little issue. But in a larger cooked dish, you should use half the amount of shallot as you would onion when making substitutions.

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