Shallots vs. Onions: What's the Difference?

Are shallots and onions the same? Can you use them interchangeably? What do shallots taste like anyway? Here we answer all of those questions and more.

There may be no more magic ingredients in all of cooking than alliums. From spicy red onions to sweet shallots, punchy scallions to delicate leeks, ubiquitous garlic to fancy seasonal ramps, not to mention that platonic ideal of a garnishing herb, chives, there so many flavorful options, it's no wonder that their use is deeply foundational in pretty much every type of cuisine around the world.

But while you can certainly swap in scallion greens for chives, and elephant garlic is just a bigger version of standard garlic, the most confusing question when it comes to cooking might be the age-old battle of shallots versus onions. While many recipes are pretty specific about asking for one or another, knowing when to use shallot versus onion sometimes feels like a secret chef handshake.

What Is a Shallot?

A shallot is a member of the allium genus and is related to both onion and garlic. Shallots grow in clusters (meaning each plant can produce multiple shallots) and are aged after harvest like onions to let the exterior skin dry. Shallots are typically found near the onions at your local grocer. Look for bulbs that feel firm and have tight papery skin, and store them in a cool, dark place.

Do Shallots and Onions Taste the Same?

Shallots have a flavor that some people describe as onion with a hint of garlic on the finish. They are peppery like a red onion when raw but get sweet when cooked. Their flavor is a bit more delicate than that of onions.

a photo of shallots and a red onion
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Do Shallots and Onions Look the Same?

An onion is a round bulbous vegetable that comes in red, yellow and white varieties, as well as some varieties specifically bred for sweetness. They have a dry papery exterior skin, and the onion's interior color is similar to its skin color. They come in all sizes, from small pearls to giant 1-pound versions that are the size of a large softball.

A shallot is a small bulb-shaped allium that comes in two varieties. Both have a pale lavender tinge to the flesh and a bronzed thin papery skin similar to onions. The most common type in the U.S. is the standard shallot, which has a rounded shape and grows in a cluster, usually with two nestled sections similar to garlic cloves. European shallots are sometimes called torpedo shallots, and while they have the same look and skin, they are a single entity, the shape is longer and they tend to be larger. These shallots taste the same and can be used interchangeably.

How About Nutrition?

Onions (including red, white and yellow) and shallots are nutrient rich, containing fiber and all sorts of key vitamins and minerals, including manganese and vitamin C. Shallots contain higher levels of some nutrients including vitamin A, magnesium, manganese and zinc.

Can You Substitute One for the Other?

Technically, from a culinary perspective, since onions and shallots behave the same way when cooked, you can substitute them one-for-one in recipes. It's important to remember, though, that shallots are milder in flavor. This matters most in raw applications, such as minced in salad dressing or sliced thin on a salad. If you're substituting onion for shallot in these types of dishes, either use a smaller amount of onion or go for an onion with a milder flavor, such as Vidalia or other sweet onion.

Cooking with Shallots

Shallots are a good ingredient to get to know. A classic use is to add minced raw shallot to vinaigrette-style salad dressings like this Creamy Shallot Dressing, or to sauces like in this Lamb with Red Wine-Shallot Sauce. Shallots are a terrific garnish for vegetables, whether pickled as in this Spring Salad, or fried, with these Steamed Green Beans. You can also make them a star, as with this Eggplant-Shallot Stew. Whole shallots can be a savior for basic gravies: peel a few and put them in your roasting pan with the protein of your choice, and once the meat or fowl is done, blend the softened shallots into the defatted pan juices for a fast gravy, no flour or thickening needed.

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