What are shallots? How are they different from onions? What do they taste like, and how exactly do you use them in recipes? Let’s take a closer look!
If you’ve spent any time in what I think of as the “onion and potato section” of the grocery store produce aisle, you’ve probably come across a bin of shallots and perhaps wondered what they are. Are they tiny red onions? Why are they shaped like giant cloves of garlic? How do you even cook them?
While shallots and onions are both part of the same family, the former have a distinctive flavor and are a fantastic addition to recipes.
What are Shallots?
Shallots are members of the allium family. Other alliums include onions, garlic, leeks, scallions and chives. This is why they look so similar to onions and garlic, with their thin, papery skins and clove-like shape; they’re all cousins!
However, unlike onions, which can be sharp and particularly pungent when eaten raw, shallots have a more delicate, sweet flavor with subtle notes of garlic. Don’t mistake the word “delicate” for “wimpy” here, though – they pack a powerful flavor punch, just without the same level of intensity.
This makes them perfect for raw preparations where you want the tang of an onion but don’t want to be breathing fire for the rest of the day – but more on that in a moment.
Choosing and Storing
While shallots and onions each have their own somewhat unique flavor profile, the process for selecting and storing them are very similar.
The best shallots are firm, compact, and not too lightweight. Look for shiny, unblemished skin. As with onions, you want to avoid anything with bruises.
Shallots are best stored in a cool, dark, and dry area, such as a cabinet. While you can store them with onions, make sure to keep both away from potatoes: potatoes and onions each give off gases that, when stored in close proximity, can cause the other to go bad quickly.
How to Use
So how exactly are you supposed to use this magical onion-garlic hybrid?
When shallots are used raw, their flavors truly shine. Try adding some finely minced shallots to a vinaigrette; they’ll provide a slight crunch in addition to their sweet, garlicky flavor. I’m also a fan of adding them to a classic bruschetta topping; they pair perfectly with sweet, summer-ripe tomatoes.
You can also slice them very thinly and add them directly to salads. They can almost always be substituted for raw red onions in recipes where you want to make the onion flavor more subtle (like guacamole).
But this doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of amazing ways to cook them as well! For example, try sautéing together some finely diced shallots, mushrooms, and garlic in butter or olive oil. In no time you’ll have an amazing topping for crostini or pasta.
Or, for something a bit more advanced, try fried shallots, which are the perfect topper for casseroles, dips or salads. Learn how in this recipe for parmesan beer cheese dip with crispy shallots.
You can also try them caramelized or even roasted whole to really enhance their natural sweetness.
How to Substitute Onions (and Vice Versa)
Ok. Now that we know what shallots are and how to use them…what if a recipe calls for them and you don’t have any? Or (gasp) you can’t find any at the grocery store? Is it ok to substitute onions?
The answer is yes and no.
Keep in mind that onions have a much harsher, sharper flavor. If a recipe calls for raw shallots, it’s likely that raw onions will be a bit too overpowering. Your best bet it is to skip them entirely or use a very small amount.
However, if the shallots are to be cooked, then by all means – swap away! As a general rule, 1 small onion is equal to about 3 small shallots. This means if a recipe calls for 1 shallot, you’ll need about 1/3 of a small onion.
In addition to being smaller than onions, shallots also have more delicate layers. Consider slicing the onion more thinly or dicing it smaller to stay as consistent to the desired texture in the recipe as possible.
You may also wish to add a touch of garlic to the recipe to recreate the flavor that shallots would have brought to the table.
Occasionally, you may choose to use cooked shallots in place of onions in a recipe. Remember to triple the amount of shallots, and keep in mind that the final results will be a bit sweeter and more mild. You’re good to go!
These purple gems are also the perfect addition to just about any pasta dish! Try them in my roasted pepper pasta sauce, or in a batch of classic Italian meatballs. And don’t forget to add them to chicken marsala – their flavor balances amazingly well with the dry marsala wine.