And does it~really~matter if you swap one for the other?
The produce aisle is overflowing with look-alikes. Zucchini and cucumbers. Sweet potatoes and yams. Plantains and bananas. Onions and shallots.
The flavor—and sometimes internal texture and appearance—is a dead giveaway for each of those duos except for the last one. So what is the difference between an onion and a shallot, anyway?
We tapped Sarah Brekke, M.S., Better Homes & Gardens Test Kitchen culinary specialist, to help us get to the root of the fundamental features that make these flavor-boosters unique. We’ll reveal what shallots taste like, how to tell them apart from onions visually, plus we’ll share how to cook with shallots (and what to use instead if you run out).
What Is a Shallot?
Shallots (Allium ascalonicum) join onions, garlic, and chives as a member of the allium family. Although the peak season for most varieties of shallots is in spring and summer, they’re available year-round in most supermarkets.
What Do Shallots Look Like?
“Shallots are smaller than onions, are more oblong, and have more of a bulb-like appearance similar to garlic,” Brekke says. For that reason, “I like to think of a shallot as a hybrid between an onion and garlic.”
You’ll often find shallots with one large or two smaller bulbs attached at the root, all covered in one flaky-skinned shell. That skin, by the way, is similar to onion skin, but it’s often lighter and more papery in texture than what you’d find on large onions, Brekke explains.
Shallots vary in interior and exterior color, based on their variety. Most often, the skin is coppery-pink, gray, golden, or light brown and the flesh is pale purple and white or all white. When stocking up on shallots by the bulb or by the bushel, seek out alliums that are firm in texture and absent of visible blemishes.
What Do Shallots Taste Like?
In terms of their flavor, Brekke says that “shallots are not quite as intense as raw onion or garlic, but still bring that assertiveness that’s often desired” to bring balance to recipes.
Think of the taste of shallots like a delicate white or yellow onion. They’re mellow and naturally sweet, with a burst of acidity and hint of garlic flavor—especially when raw.
What Is the Difference Between an Onion and a Shallot?
As we mentioned, onions and shallots are allium family siblings. When comparing shallots to onions, the largest variation (besides the strength of flavor) is the cell structure. Shallots tend to cook quicker and easier than onions, which means they caramelize at a more rapid rate and are ready to provide a subtle aromatic backbone to a variety of dishes at a more rapid clip than onions.
If you put green onions and shallots toe to toe, you’d notice that green onions have more flavor and texture variation from root to stem. The hollow, tender, green end gives way to a layered, thick and sturdy white stem.
The delicate bite of a shallot is fairly similar in flavor to what you’ll find in the white end of a green onion (aka scallion).
Can You Use an Onion Instead of a Shallot—And Vice Versa?
In most cases, they can be used interchangeably without any major issues, Brekke confirms. Any deviations will likely be fairly covert. If you do opt to use a shallot, just keep in mind that the flavor will be a bit milder overall.
To replace 1 medium onion, use about 4 shallots, Brekke says.
Give this swap a shot in French Onion Pasta, Caramelized Onion and Potato Breakfast Casserole, or Chicken Thighs with Caramelized Onion and Bacon Dressing and see if you or your fellow diners can notice.
Using shallots instead of onions works well on many occasions, especially if you prefer a milder onion-y element. However, if your dish is relying on the more intense flavor that can come from onions—especially if used raw—you may not want to use shallots instead, Brekke admits. Case in point: Pub-style onion rings, Blue Cheese Stuffed Burger with Red Onion and Spinach, and Spiced Pork Chops with Zucchini and Onion.
If you don’t have shallots in your pantry, you should be safe substituting with a similar amount of:
Green onions (just the white parts)
How to Use Shallots in Recipes
“We love frying up shallots till they are crispy and using them as a topping for roasted veggies and casseroles,” Brekke says, as you’ll see in Creamy Green Beans with Crispy Shallots. “We also adore using shallots in dressings and dips; the flavor is the perfect blend of mild and assertive that seems to complement many different vinaigrettes.” (Don’t miss Chicken Salad with Creamy Tarragon-Shallot Dressing and our crowd-pleasing Mushroom Chips with Smoky Shallot Dip.)
Try them chopped (for shallot recipes like Beef Tenderloin with Parmesan-Herb Stuffing), finely diced, sliced, roasted whole, or consider making tangy pickled shallots. We also highly recommend that you give caramelized shallots a go. Our Creamy Cashew and Onion Dip will walk you through how easy it is to mimic the popular caramelized onion technique with shallots instead.
Our new favorite use for shallots? Homemade Chili Crisp. In other condiment inspiration, this giftable (but, in our eyes, often too tasty to share) Cowboy Bacon-Shallot Jam shows how shallots and onions can work in harmony in the same sweet-and-savory recipe.
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