What Are Shallots?

Can shallots be used like onions in a recipe?

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Shallots, although they look nothing like them, are often confused with scallions. They are both a type of onion, but whereas a scallion is long and thin with green leaves and a white tip, the shallot is bulb-shaped, with copper, reddish, or gray skin. It looks rather like a small, elongated onion, but has a milder flavor with a hint of garlic. 

It is not often that we have shallots and no onions in our kitchen, but if that were the case, could we swap one for the other? What about using onion in place of shallots? Before substituting ingredients it is important to understand exactly what a shallot is.

Anatomy of a Shallot

From the outside, a shallot looks a bit like a misshapen red onion, but once you peel it, you will see that instead of rings, it divides into cloves like garlic does. Small shallot bulbs will have two to three individual cloves and large shallots can have up to six cloves. Each clove is flat on one side and rounded on the other. 

In some recipes, it is hard to determine whether the entire shallot bulb is needed or if the number count in the ingredient list refers to the number of shallot cloves. In general, if the recipe calls for 1 shallot, use all the cloves within that single shallot bulb.

shallots vs. onions illustration
Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018 

Taste of a Shallot

A member of the allium family, along with onions, garlic, scallions, leeks, and chives, the shallot is one of the milder of the group. The flavor can be described as a little sweet, with hints of garlic. Since it doesn't have the same bite as onion, shallot is ideal raw in a salad or dressing, and won't overpower more delicate dishes. 

Swapping Shallots for Onions (and Vice Versa)

If you happen to have shallots in the pantry but your recipe calls for onion, you can substitute one for the other. This switch will come in handy if you are cutting a recipe in half and don't want to use only part of an onion. The general rule of thumb is for every small onion, use three small shallots. Just remember the taste will be milder and less "oniony." 

What may happen more often is that your recipe calls for shallots but you only have onion. Unfortunately, this swap only works if the shallots are to be cooked—raw onion tastes nothing like raw shallot. If substituting for cooked shallot, calculate a similar ratio but add a little bit of garlic to the measurement of onion to provide that hint of garlic found in shallots.

Shallot/Scallion Confusion

By looking at them, it seems unlikely shallots and scallions would be confused with each other. Perhaps it is due to the fact that they are both a type of onion and start with the letter "s." It could also be because shallots are referred to as scallions in some areas of the country, particularly in Louisiana. Early French settlers most likely had to substitute green onions for shallots, hence the confusion.