Shallots vs. Onions: What’s the Difference (and Can I Use Them Interchangeably)?

You’re in the produce aisle, staring at an overwhelming spread of veggies, trying to decide between a white onion, a purple onion and a yellow onion, when that familiar feeling of grocery store panic starts to creep in. Wait, what about shallots? you think.

What about them! While all alliums—onions, shallots, garlic, scallions, leeks, ramps, chives and their friends—are beautiful in their own way (not to mention essential to flavorful cooking), we have a soft spot for those small, oblong purple cuties. In a battle of shallots versus onions, we couldn’t possibly choose a favorite…but if you want to branch out from your usual Spanish onion and harness the subtly delicious flavor of a shallot, there are a few key differences you should know.

What is a shallot?

Shallots are members of the allium family, so botanically speaking, they’re actually just a type of onion. That means they’re similarly aromatic and pungent, and they might make you cry when you chop them, but compared to onions, shallots are much sweeter and milder. They also grow in clusters instead of single bulbs. They’re like the onion’s delicate, sophisticated cousin. 

When would I want to cook with shallots?

Because they’re so mild, shallots lend themselves particularly well to raw applications—finely diced in a vinaigrette or sliced and quick-pickled on a sandwich. They’re also an ideal pair for braised dishes and slow-cooked roasts, because they get really sweet and jammy when cooked for long periods of time. Where onions might punch you in the taste buds, shallots practically melt into whatever dish you’re making.

Can I use shallots and onions interchangeably?

Yes and no. It really depends on how the ingredient is being used in the recipe and how much the recipe calls for. 

If a recipe calls for a tablespoon of diced shallot and you only have an onion, you can safely substitute. We’d go so far as to say that you can trade chopped shallots for chopped onions in equal amounts. (It’s harder—but not impossible—to swap whole shallots and onions because of their size differences.)

But if your recipe depends on either shallot or onion as a main ingredient, swapping probably isn’t the best route. French onion soup isn’t really the same dish if you replace the onions with shallots. Likewise, if you’re making a recipe that revolves around the subtle flavor of shallots, you can’t swap in onions and expect the same results.

How to use onions in place of shallots:

If the recipe calls for raw shallots and you want to use an onion, fuhgeddaboudit. Regardless of the type of onion (Spanish, white, red, Vidalia), it will be too spicy and aggressive to act as a stand-in.

But if you’re replacing cooked shallots in a dish, a Spanish or Vidalia onion can work in a pinch. You’ll have to chop it much more finely to replicate the delicate texture of shallots, and adjust the amount based on how pungent your onion is, but you’ll get a similar effect.t.

How to use shallots in place of onions:

If you’re halving a larger recipe that calls for onions, you’re in luck. Using a few small shallots is easier and more economical than wasting half an onion (or burying it in your crisper drawer). Just keep in mind that because shallots are milder, you might have to adjust the amount according to taste.

As a guideline, you can use three small shallots in place of one medium to large onion. The final dish won’t be identical, but it will still taste delicious. How could it not? Shallots are magical like that. 

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Senior Food Editor

Katherine Gillen is PureWow’s senior food editor. She’s a writer, recipe developer and food stylist with a degree in culinary arts and professional experience in New York City...