Every cook, whether beginner or not, knows how important onions are. With their sweet and earthy flavor, these alliums form the base for various dishes in almost all cuisines around the world. Besides flavor, onions are also well-loved for their wide availability throughout the year, as well as their long storage life.
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However, once you delve into cooking, you’ll find out that onions have over a dozen varieties: shallots, scallions, spring onions, red onions… The more varieties you discover, the more confused you become. Which type of onion is the best for sauces? Which one to incorporate in your meaty dishes?
One of the most common onion varieties is shallot. Surprisingly, there’s a great number of recipes that call for shallots. When you decide to buy them, you will probably feel even more confused: they look like garlic but taste like sweet onions. On top of that, they are quite hard to peel. So, what are shallots exactly? Can they just be replaced with onions? Are there any other suitable shallot substitutes you can use?
This article will answer all your questions related to shallots.
What Are Shallots?
Shallots is a type of onion, more specifically, a botanical variety of the species Allium cepa. Its closest relatives are garlic, chive, leeks, and Chinese onion.
It originated in Central or Southwest Asia and reached the Mediterranean region traveling through India. The name “shallot” comes from Ashkelon, a city in Canaan, where Ancient Greeks believed shallots originated.
Shallot’s skin varies from golden brown to gray to red. Most shallots have a white flesh that is sometimes broken up by magenta or green lines.
When peeled, they separate into cloves like garlic. Shallots are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes.
The so-called Western shallots are the most common type sold in the US supermarkets. They are rounder, smaller, thinner, and lighter in color than regular onions and often referred to as “false shallots” or “Jersey shallots”. Their skin is pinkish-orange, whereas the flesh is light purple.
Asian shallots are even smaller and with a deeper purple color. The French gray shallots, also known as griselles, are pear-shaped and offer a rather subtle flavor. They are also called “true shallots”.
As far as size is concerned, shallots can be small, medium, and jumbo. As a rule of thumb, smaller shallots taste milder and, according to experienced cooks, better.
Compared to onions, shallots have sweeter, milder, and more complex flavor, with a slightly garlicky twist. The longer shallots are stored, the more intense their flavor gets.
In case you were wondering, they make your eyes tear, though not as much as regular onions. All members of the allium family contain sulfur-based compounds, which are released upon cutting the plant’s cells, react with the atmospheric oxygen and make you cry.
Just like other types of onions, shallots can be eaten raw (usually in salads and dressings) or cooked (fried or roasted), in addition to being pickled. This makes them easy to incorporate into various recipes.
Historically, shallots have been used both for their aromatic and medicinal properties in Asian, French, and Mediterranean cooking.
Finely diced shallots are especially popular in French cuisine, where they’re often combined with wine or butter to provide the flavor base for sauces like Béarnaise, Bercy, and Beurre Blanc.
It is safe to say that shallots are indispensable in Asian cuisine. In the southern regions of India, they are commonly added to curries and different types of sambar, a lentil-based dish. Indian restaurants often include shallots pickled in red vinegar in their menus.
Iranians love grated shallots with yogurt, usually as a side dish to kebabs or as part of torshi, a sour dish comprised of various vegetables under vinegar.
Shallots are also widely used in many Southeast Asian dishes like fried rice. Chinese cuisine offers shallot chips, whereas in Indonesia, they’re pickled and added to various traditional dishes.
Buying and Storing Shallots
Shallots are available throughout the whole year, but their peak season is summer, i.e. from May to September. They can be found fresh and green in the spring, as well as dry, freeze-dried, and dehydrated throughout the whole year.
Like garlic, fresh shallots are sold in clusters but when selecting the best samples, think of onions. Ideally, shallots should be firm and compact, without visible damages. They should have their skin on and it should be smooth and shiny. If you see sprouted shallots, avoid them, since sprouts are an indicator of age.
If kept in a cool, dry, and dark place with plenty of air circulation, shallots will last for up to one month. If you place them in a clean pantyhose and hang them, they can last up to two months.
In case your shallots sprout, don’t worry, you can still use them. Just remove the bitter green sprouts or, if you are a fan of stronger flavors, include the sprouts into your dishes.
Shallots can be chopped and frozen up to three months. It should be noted though, that once you thaw them, they will not be as crunchy as fresh ones.
Health Benefits of Shallots
The health benefits of shallots have been known and appreciated for thousands of years. In Indian medicine, they’re often prescribed as a remedy for a sore throat, combined with jaggery and sugar. In Ayurveda, shallots are believed to have a cooling effect, which makes them suitable for alleviating inflammation, muscle pains, water-retention, and swelling.
Even though they’re smaller in size and milder in taste, shallots contain more antioxidants (flavonoids and phenols) than other members of the onion family! This makes them very efficient in reducing oxidative damage and fighting various chronic diseases.
Shallots also contain sulfoxides, which give them antibiotic, antidiabetic, and fibrinolytic properties. This means that shallots are great for fighting viral and bacterial infections, controlling blood sugar levels, preventing insulin resistance, preventing the formation of blood clots, and reducing LDL cholesterol levels.
Shallots and other onions contain vitamins A, B6, and C, essential minerals like potassium, as well as anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties that benefit the blood vessels, digestive organs, muscles, and skin.
Shallots vs. Onions – Can They Be Used Interchangeably in Recipes?
After interviewing some of our users and fellow cooks, we have found that almost all of them tend to stock up on onions and garlic but only a few keep shallot reserves in their kitchen. The reasons for this range from simply forgetting to buy shallots to the fact that their price is slightly higher. There’s also their size, which makes them harder to cut, and the fact that they’re somewhat finicky to peel. In other words, shallots are not considered an essential ingredient in the kitchen.
That is why knowing how to substitute shallots is very important. Onions are the most available substitute for using but you need to be careful. Swapping onions for shallots in the same amount will result in a dish with prominently oniony flavor.
Also, it should be noted that onions can replace shallots only in cooked dishes. Raw onions in a dressing don’t taste so good (and will result in bad breath). Also, this swap is not applicable for recipes that call for more than a ½ cup of shallots. This amount implies that shallots play an important role in the recipe and replacing them might ruin the whole dish.
So, what type of onions are the best substitute for shallots? Well, any onion can substitute for a shallot, depending on the person you ask. Most coking experts voted for yellow onions. Small white onions, also called pearl onions, can replace shallots as well. On the other hand, sweet onions are considered too sweet, whereas red onions are too strong. However, all onion types have a common trait – when cooked, they get softer and lighter in taste.
To recreate the shallot flavor, add just a pinch of garlic powder to the onions you decide to use. However, bear in mind that garlic is stronger in taste than shallots so be careful not to add too much. You can also add fresh garlic. Just crush a clove and add only the liquid that comes out.
As a rule of thumb, one onion replaces three shallots. Since shallots are smaller, make sure to chop the onions into pieces that are smaller than usual.
Shallots tend to melt when cooked but that’s not the case with onions. To help mellow the onions’ flavor further, cook them down before adding to the dish.
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Shallots vs. Scallions
Shallots and scallions are often mixed up. If you want to test this theory, just send your husband to buy one of them J It might have something to do with their names or the fact that they’re the two mildest and most versatile members of the allium family
However, these two are quite different in appearance. Scallions are actually green onions, sold in bunches in the grocery stores. Scallions are in fact ordinary onions, only harvested while immature and still cylindrical, hence their slender, leek-like appearance.
Scallions are most often used raw to add a pungent note to egg dishes and salads, or simply sliced into thin rings as a garnish. When it comes to cooked dishes, they’re most often added to soups, stir-fries, and quiches for subtle flavoring. Combined with garlic and ginger, scallions form a base for sauces and broths.
Are scallions a suitable substitute for shallots? Yes, scallions are mild enough to serve as a substitute for shallots. Make sure to only use the tops, without the bulbs, and add them later in the cooking process to avoid overcooking.
Other Substitutes for Shallots
When used as shallot substitutes, leeks are very similar to scallions, i.e. only the tops are used. However, since they take longer to cook than scallions, leeks should be added earlier in the cooking process. Alternatively, leeks can be sautéed over medium heat to soften before adding them to the recipe.
Garlic scapes, i.e. the flower buds of the garlic plant, look much like green onions but with long, twisting tails. In terms of taste, they are somewhere between onions and garlic. In terms of flavor, they taste somewhat sharper than shallots so, when you use them as a substitute, reduce the amount required in the recipe by about 1/4.
Delicious Shallot Recipes
Shallots make a great addition to stir-fries, sautés, salads, soups, side dishes, and casseroles, and is very often paired with garlic.
Combine them with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, as well as fresh herbs like rosemary and thyme to create marinades and sauces for your meat dishes.
Raw shallots pair well with fresh fruits like pineapple or vegetables like jalapeno to produce healthy salsas.
Here are more ideas to use shallots when cooking:
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