December 7, 2023


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Shallots vs. Onions: What’s the Difference?

3 min read

When my editor was like, “Do you want to write a story about shallots,” I jumped at the opportunity to better know my favorite allium. I opened up Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s famous poem about them, only to learn it wasn’t about shallots at all, but some lady. Of Shalott. No relation. Boo! I then learned that shallots and other guys who make you cry when cut are called LACRIMATORS. Perhaps you’ve dated one! But then my editor was like, “I need you to write about things that are actually useful to home cooks.” So here we are:

What are shallots?

Shallots are a member of the allium family (Allium cepa var, if you took Latin in high school). Its relatives include yellow onions, red onions, white onions, spring onions, Vidalia onions, garlic, leeks, chives, and scallions (a.k.a. green onions). Whew! Shallots grow from a bulb (called the mother) in clusters (the daughters!)—so if you’ve ever gotten two shallots for the price of one, that’s why. Like onions, they provide a building block of flavor for countless dishes, from creamy, mustardy chicken to vinaigrette.

There are a few different shallot cultivars grown around the world. The Jersey shallot is the type you’re most likely to find at the grocery store; it has rosy pink skin, a roundish shape, and purple-white flesh. But if you ask a Frenchman, he might tell you that the French gray shallot—alias: griselle—is the only true shallot. These highly sought-after shallots are smaller, longer, and have thicker, greyish skins. They also have to be hand-propagated (needy). Think of them as the heirloom tomatoes of the shallot family.

The elongated, teardrop shape of a shallot.

So what’s the difference between a shallot and an onion?

Shallots taste like a cross between red and yellow onions, only less punchy. They have a delicate, sweet flavor with a hint of allium-y sharpness. You can substitute shallots in nearly any recipe that calls for onions—just make sure you’re using the same volume. (For example, several medium shallots equals about one small onion.)

How should I pick a good one? And how long do they last?

Shallots can be found near the onions at most grocery stores. They should feel firm and heavy for their size, with dry, papery skins. Kept in a cool, dark, and dry place (a.k.a. not in the fridge, where moisture lives), shallots will stay good for weeks. If they develop soft spots or start sprouting, the shallots should be discarded.

Help, there are so many ways to cut them! What do I do?

Whether you want to dice or slice, start by peeling the shallot. Remove the papery skin, leaving the root end intact—that’ll make it easier to cut. If you don’t want to cry, keep a damp towel on your cutting board while you work (more on that hack, plus a few others, here). From there, you have options:

  • Dice for vinaigrettes and pan sauces for a subtle, evenly distributed bite.
  • Slice into rings for a raw, pickled, or fried garnish. For really thin slices, use a mandoline.
  • Cut into matchsticks for an assertive, beautiful topping.
  • Leave whole if you don’t have time for knives. Whole shallots can be peeled and glazed as a side dish or roasted under a chicken.

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