Onions and shallots are closely related but have several key differences in appearance, taste, and popularity. To be honest, I love them both, but there are times where certain dishes will taste better is using the ‘right onion’.
They are both part of the ‘allium’ group, which also includes garlic, chives and leeks, but just because they are the same family, it doesn’t mean you can use them in the same way, or substitute one for another. Certain dishes just will not taste anywhere near what they should, if you swap flavours. There can be certain exceptions, and an ‘oniony taste’ where it’s needed is better than none at all!
If you are anything like me, you always have onions whether red, white or brown, they will sit happily in a dark place, shedding their skin all over my cupboard floor! Shallots – not so, I only buy them when I need them (expensive, go ‘off’ faster) and not as useable in every dish. They have a white and purplish hue to them and tend to grow in clusters, whilst onions love to go it alone during growth. Shallots do make an appearance, usually when I am showing off at a dinner party!
Onions vs Shallots and their differences
Other than the appearance and taste of these two bulbous additions to your food can be very different.
Shallots have a mild, somewhat sweet flavour, whilst the sharper, pungent taste of onions is much more discernible. Having said that, red and white onions do tend to be less eye-watering, and a little sweeter than their brown counterparts.
Just to confuse everyone, in the UK we have ‘spring onions’ which in other countries are called ‘scallions’ – these should only ever be used in salads, not for cooking. If you are not sure what I am talking about, they tend to have small bulbs (white) and long green stems when fresh and not chopped to size. The white part where it is beginning to turn to green can be used, but not much further along the stem. However, I sometimes use part of the stem as well as the white bulb for potato salad, or when I need chives and have run out! Finely chopped, they are a good substitute for garnish as well.
When I was on an assignment in both the Southern US and Mexico, they used to throw spring onions on their grills or barbecues. The smell was wonderful, but they appeared a little too ‘charred’ for my taste! Talking of charring and burning, it’s become a ‘chef fad’ here! Popular way is to char round the edges of an onion petal, or use burnt onion ash in food. I like to stay up with trends, but……?
In researching this article for a little more interesting facts, I discovered that shallots are far more nutritious than onions – must admit this surprised me a little, even though I am a qualified nutritionist. Vitamins and minerals such as B6 and fibre are much higher in shallots, and these are two important components contributing to your overall health.
Best ways to use onions or shallots
Brown (yellow) onions:
- Roasts, tray bakes, sautés, caramelised, soups, stews, curries, savoury pastries, dips – a multitude of everyday uses. You can even stuff a whole onion for a delicious veggie dish. Burgers and kebabs – obviously popular and certainly add to the overall taste. In burgers, in my mind, they are better cooked.
Their sweetness goes better in raw dishes, but also popular in burgers.
- Sandwiches, baguettes, salads, burgers, wraps, or even as a garnish, etc.
- Definitely the best for salads, guacamole, salsa, where you don’t want the flavour to be dominant. The only time I definitely use them in cooking is a beautiful Provençale Tomato Tart, where you want to taste them, but still let the sweetness of the tomatoes shine through.
- Sometimes soups and pasta dishes, pickles, salad dressing, vinaigrettes, sauces etc, but can be lovely in a dish such as beef stroganoff. They taste quite good when crispy as well.
As you can see, all these varieties have a ‘raison d’etre’, with brown onions being the most versatile. In a good supermarket or market, you can see so many variations of onions, shallots etc, it’s so enticing.
In the UK, we had a period of time when the ‘Onion Johnnies’ used to appear every couple of weeks and go door to door! Unfortunately, they ceased to appear, probably due to economic reasons. How I miss their delicious Roscoff onions!
I would love to know if they still visit any part of the UK, so if they do, please let us know!