Know Your Onions: Scallions, Shallots, and Leeks

For years, I had the following problem: I would glance at the title of a recipe, read the word “scallion” and think, “Nope, seafood. Too complicated.” While I’ll acknowledge that I was holding onto a misconception about seafood in general, it is also true that a scallion is an onion, no matter how much it sounds like the word “scallop.” For that matter, a shallot is also a type of seafood-sounding onion, and since “leek” sounds a lot like “leech,” it isn’t much better. Today I plan to address this confusion.

Just for the record, here are all three types of onions together, shown in full rather than in close-up:

The scallions are on the left beside the knife; the shallots are the round papery onions in the middle, and the leeks are the large stalks on the right. While I’m at it, here is a link to a recipe on another site involving scallops, which turned out to be once of my favorite types of seafood once I figured out what they are. But enough about scallops. On to the onions.

You might think an onion is an onion is an onion. And of course, there are a handful of other, more common onions that I haven’t photographed for this post, the ones you probably imagine when you think of onions in general. Vidalia onions are my favorites of these; they are yellow and sweet, with lots of juiciness. They make excellent caramelized onions or fried onion rings. Red onions are my least favorites; these are spicy and pungent, especially when raw. Because of their strong flavor, red onions are usually the ones you find on burgers or in pickling. White onions are the mildest type; they make good bases for soup and also work well in Mexican food.

About Scallions

Of the three onions I’m profiling here, scallions are probably the most familiar. The term “scallion” is used interchangeably with the term “green onion,” and you see them a lot in stir fry. When you prepare scallions, you need to trim off any portions of the greens that have wilted and also remove the roots and any gooey skin from the bulb. You can see that the scallions shown below need both of these treatments:

The scallions shown here are trimmed and ready for slicing:

You can eat both the white parts and the greens; the greens are often added near the end of cooking to provide crunch, whereas the white bulbs are usually added earlier to flavor the oil. Since they have different uses and textures, I tend to chop them separately and then guess at which would be better for my recipe (most don’t specify).

This link provides a good explanation of how the taste of scallions differs from that of spring onions, which look a lot like scallions but have a bulging bulb at the base. In general, I would argue that scallions are used as an accent component in a dish, giving it a particular flavor profile. Don’t confuse them with chives, which are treated as an onion-y herb and which are much subtler in their flavor, even though they look like a thin type of scallion.

About Shallots

Shallots are one of those ingredients that you don’t start using until you are really trying to up your cooking game. Served raw, they pack a similar punch to red onions but mellow out when cooked, lending what is often described as “delicate” flavor to a dish. I use them in my recipe for clam linguine, and this is the type of dish where you’re likely to find them. They pair well with butter, garlic, and white wine, and are often used raw as a component in salad dressings. Shallots are much more expensive than other onions, around seven dollars per pound for organic, so don’t use them in situations where they would be covered up. This is not the onion you want as the base of your homemade chicken soup or your five-alarm chili.

With all of that said, a little bit of shallot goes a long way, which means they are usually affordable for what you actually need. Each shallot generally has two or three bulbs beneath its papery skin, similar to a head of garlic. To prepare them, you want to remove the skin and outer layer(s) until you are left with shiny purple skin.

Sometimes the inner layers of a shallot can be papery, so I like to remove the skin and then slice each bulb in half so I can see whether I need to remove anything else. In the picture below, you can see that the outermost layer is probably more skin than flesh, so I would probably remove it before slicing the rest of the shallot.

Cut off the ends and slice thiny. Remember that because shallots are still onions, you don’t want to bash them; you’ll weep more if you do.

About Leeks

Leeks may be my favorite type of onion, in part because of their rich flavor and in part because they are so much fun to slice.* The process for growing them involves building up the soil around the stems, which means you have to take special care when cleaning them because they almost always contain dirt and/or mud.

Slice off the green stems right around the place where the green changes to white and the bulb looks cylindrical. The stems are too tough to be edible on their own, but you can save them and use them to flavor a stock if you like.

Once you’ve removed the stems, look at the inside of the leek. You will see rings like those on a tree, and what you’re looking for is any hint of dirt between those rings.

If you can’t tell, slice off about an inch of the bulb and separate the individual layers, rinsing when you find sand.

Continue to cut small discs until you aren’t finding any more dirt. It’s worth noting that the sand is generally found between the outer (white) layers and not in the green center portion, so you’ll probably only need the rinse the outer rings.

Once you have sliced and cleaned the leek, chop the individual rings into thin slices (this is the fun part!). This is easiest to do if you cut vertically into the rings, which will fall away into pretty little rectangular pieces. (Bunch up the white rings to make for easier cutting after an initial cut to slice them in half.)

Leeks make fantastic bases for soups, especially vegetable-based soups, and work very well with eggs. Because they lack the peppery component of other onions, you’ll find them in situations that call for the type of deeper, more umami flavor that you would find with caramelized onions.

All of these onions can really add a lot to a meal, each in its own way. So next time you see one of them in your list of ingredients, give it a shot!


* Compared to other onions, anyway. Leeks won’t make you cry, which is always a plus.

Scroll to top