Know Your Onions (and Shallots and Leeks and Ramps)

You may dote on your garlic, adore your onions, worship your shallots, but do you really know the difference between a spring onion and a scallion? A ramp and a ramson? A Welsh onion and a leek?

The base of countless dishes across nearly every cuisine, alliums are an essential kitchen staple. But they’re also bewildering, with unfixed and overlapping designations that can be difficult for even professionals to classify. (“Allium,” the Latin word for garlic, refers to a genus of plants that includes hundreds of species edible and decorative and sometimes both.)

Edible alliums are linked by their stink, a pronounced aroma caused by the sulfur compounds that make them up. This odoriferous character, ranging from sweet and herbal to strident and metallic, means you always know when there’s an allium in the room, often before it’s even sliced. It’s these same sulfurous vapors that can sting your eyes. (To curb any tears, chill especially aggressive varieties like onions and shallots before chopping.) But alliums’ harshness mellows considerably when cooked, their sugars browning and caramelizing. Or if using raw alliums, tame their bite by rinsing them under cool water or soaking them in an acid like lemon juice or vinegar for a few minutes before whisking into dressings and sauces.

Because there are so many different varieties with all their varying levels of pungency, even seasoned allium lovers can get confused as to the best ways to put each one to use (raw? simmered? caramelized?). To help clarify, here’s a guide for every cook looking to get the most out of everything from those first green ramps of the season all the way to the stalwart storing onions in winter’s depths.


The most potent of all alliums, garlic has been a love-it-or-hate-it proposition throughout history.

In the kitchen, it makes its presence known, especially when added raw to salads, sauces and relishes. But, cooked at low or moderate heat, its strident nature softens, becoming sweet and almost candylike. It’s best to avoid high heat when cooking garlic; once burned, its acrid flavor will taint everything else in the dish.

Cultivated garlic — as opposed to wild garlic, which is another species — falls into two main categories, hardneck and softneck (the neck is the garlic’s stalk). Softneck is what you’re most likely to see in supermarkets because it’s easier to grow and more shelf-stable. Hardneck garlic, such as rocambole, is grown in cooler climates, and has a more nuanced flavor that’s earthier and less sharp than softneck varieties. But it’s also expensive and can be hard to find outside farmers’ markets.

Garlic Scapes

Garlic scapes are a relatively new offering among alliums: They’ve found a market among garlic lovers only in the past two decades. Exuberantly curlicue and pale green, they are the fresh stems of hardneck garlic varieties. Farmers typically trim them off maturing plants to encourage the bulbs to grow larger.

With a firm, succulent texture and a mildly spicy undertone, scapes are vegetable and aromatic all in one. Slice them up and sauté them like green beans, steam them like asparagus, add them to soups and stews or purée them into dips and pesto. Theirs is a gentle, herbal bite.

The roots of the garlic plant are also edible — good to know if you’re growing garlic yourself. The farmer and cookbook author Lee Jones of The Chef’s Garden in Huron, Ohio, describes them as having a sweeter, more delicate flavor than garlic, and recommends using them raw in salads, floated in broths or fried as wispy garnishes.

Green Garlic

Green garlic is harvested before it’s fully mature. The youngest, skinniest ones look like scallions, but with flat stems, and have a fresh, grassy, zippy garlic flavor. As they mature, green garlic plants will develop bulbs, but they are still milder and juicier than cured garlic (the standard kind you buy in grocery stores). Because green garlic doesn’t have papery outer layers to remove, you can just chop up the whole bulbs along with any nice-looking stems. Use them either raw or cooked, in salads, sautés, marinades, sauces and dips. Green garlic also makes an excellent substitute for scallions anywhere you’d like a garlicky jolt.

Elephant Garlic

And finally, there’s elephant garlic, which doesn’t belong to the garlic species at all; instead, it’s a cultivar of wild leeks. It has larger bulbs and a more muted flavor than common garlic, making it good for garlic-phobes but not very compelling for garlic fans.


Although leeks are mostly used as a supporting ingredient in the United States, they’re a star in other parts of the world, served roasted, baked, poached or grilled, usually whole to flaunt their elegant length.

Milder and sweeter than many alliums, leeks have been cultivated since ancient times, and were especially popular in medieval Europe, served during Lent as the centerpiece of meatless meals.

Leeks do well in the cold, making them a winter mainstay. In order to cultivate the sweetest, straightest and palest bulbs, farmers often heap earth onto leek beds to keep them tucked underground all winter long, then harvest them in the spring. This treatment has one downside: Leeks require thorough cleaning to get rid of all the soil nestled in their layers.

To clean a leek, first slice off the hairy roots and trim away any withered, yellowing bits from the green leaves. Then, the leeks can be sliced, soaked in a bowl of water until the soil sinks to the bottom, and rinsed well in a colander. Or, slice the leeks lengthwise and hold the cut sides under a tap, letting the cascade of water sluice away the dirt.

Most recipes call for using only the white and light green parts of the leek, saving the dark greens for stock. But when thinly sliced and sautéed, the dark greens have a rich mineral, herbal taste that’s a lot deeper than the mild white sections. The slimmer the leek, the finer and less coarse its greens tend to be, so choose the smallest ones you can get and use every part.


A staple in almost every kitchen, onions range in shape from softball-size orbs to diminutive pearl or cipollinis, any of which can be yellow, white or reddish purple, with papery skins. In general, white and red onions tend to be sweeter, while yellow varieties are more pungent, though that can vary depending on the cultivar. (If a recipe calls for a generic “onion,” it’s the yellow kind, usually one that’s 2 to 2½ inches in diameter, though a little onion more or less really won’t harm a dish.)

Five Weeknight Dishes

Emily Weinstein has menu suggestions for the week. There are thousands of ideas for what to cook waiting for you on New York Times Cooking.

    • This coconut fish and tomato bake from Yewande Komolafe yields a gorgeous, silky ginger-coconut sauce.
    • This tasty recipe for sheet-pan chicken and potatoes by Lidey Heuck is really nice without being fussy.
    • This vegetarian baked Alfredo pasta with broccoli rabe is inspired by pasta Alfredo, but with green vegetables added.
    • Kay Chun adds asparagus and snap peas to this spring vegetable japchae in this vegan take on the classic dish.
    • You could substitute chicken or another type of fish in this summery grilled salmon salad from Melissa Clark.

    Onions can be used raw in relishes, sauces and dressings, but they are most often cooked into dishes with other aromatics, such as in a mirepoix or sofrito, where they create a foundation of flavors. When slowly caramelized, onions become incredibly sweet and silky, and can be used as a topping or a sauce. And when roasted or fried, they become a vegetable in their own right.

    Available year round, onions are cured after harvesting, which allows their skins to dry out and improves their keeping qualities. Also known as storing onions, these hardy varieties can last for up to a year when kept away from the light in a cool, airy place.


    With flat, broad leaves above slim, red-blushed bulbs, ramps look a lot more delicate than they smell, which is intensely garlicky and funky in a way that will stink up your fridge if you let them linger.

    Native to the Eastern United States from South Carolina up to Canada, ramps grow wild in spring, among the very first green things to blossom in wooded areas before tree leaves emerge to block their sun. The name comes from the word “ramson,” a type of wild garlic, though botanically ramps are closer to onions. Sometimes you’ll see ramps referred to as wild leeks, though they’re not exactly those, either.

    What they are is wildly trendy, an “it” vegetable to a generation of chefs who are drawn to their mix of prettiness and pungency.

    Because of their popularity, ramps are at risk of overforaging. If you come across a clump, don’t pull them all up. Leave most of the bulbs in the ground to propagate next year. Or, even better, harvest only the leaves and their pink stems.

    Ramps can be munched raw as they are in Appalachia (where festivals are devoted to their devourment). In her cookbook “Victuals: An Appalachian Journey” (Clarkson Potter, 2016), Ronni Lundy sautés them in ham fat and serves them with eggs. They’re also delightful pickled or grilled. The floppy leaves can be cooked like spinach, either alone or mixed with other greens, and will turn gorgeously silky in the pan.


    Of all the alliums, scallions can be the hardest to categorize. In many parts of the country, they’re called green onions or spring onions, though they are distinct from spring onions (see below). They’re also sometimes confused with shallots. But scallions and other bunching onions like Japanese negi and Welsh onions (which are not, in fact, leeks) are a species unto themselves. They are characterized by slender, cylindrical bulbs, usually white but sometimes streaked with purple, which are attached to green, tubular tops, with a flavor that’s much more herbal and milder than onions.

    Scallions can be used raw in salads, sauces and relishes, or cooked as a vegetable or an aromatic. In Asia, they are often paired with garlic and ginger and make up the foundation of myriad dishes.


    A variety of onion that grows in a cluster of elongated bulbs and has been cultivated for thousands of years, shallots are revered in Belgium, France and the Netherlands for their delicacy of flavor, but they’re a relatively recent arrival to markets in the United States. Ranging from thumb-size varieties to those as fat as a child’s fist, some shallots are tear-shaped, others more cylindrical. Echalions, also called banana or torpedo shallots, are actually a different onion cultivar, with a less nuanced flavor that’s more like a red onion than a true shallot. French gray shallots are smaller and harder to peel than other varieties, but milder, too, and preferred by certain shallot aficionados who prize their subtlety.

    Because they’re less sharp than other onions, they’re a good choice for slivering into salads and sauces, grating into yogurt or pickling, and they’re often sliced and fried as a crisp garnish. But roasted whole shallots, basted with a little oil and wine or stock, make a sweet and shapely vegetable dish all by themselves.

    Spring Onions

    Unlike papery-skinned storing onions, spring onions are a seasonal product available, as advertised, in late spring and early summer. They’re the same cultivars as common onions, but are harvested when they’re not fully mature, and sold with the greens still attached. (In short, they’re just very young onions.)

    Spring onions can be gathered when their bulbs are as slim as pencils or as plump as apples. When skinny, they resemble scallions, and, in some parts of the country, the terms “spring onions” and “scallions” are used interchangeably. But true scallions are actually a distinct species.

    With a relatively mild flavor and snappy, juicy texture, spring onions can be used in any recipe in place of regular onions. But they shine raw in salads and relishes, where their gentle flavor and crisp texture are most apparent. The greens, if still fresh and pert, can be sliced and used like scallions.

    In her book “The Taste of Country Cooking (Knopf, 2006), the chef Edna Lewis dresses a salad of sliced spring onions or scallions and the first seasonal lettuces with vinegar seasoned with sugar, salt and pepper but no oil, which “kept the greens always crisp and crunchy,” she wrote.

    When alliums are lightly dressed, their flavor shines through, with just enough glorious pungency — and absolutely no tears.

    Recipes: Creamy Bucatini With Spring Onions and Mint | Roasted Carrots With Shallots, Mozzarella and Spicy Bread Crumbs | Skillet Chicken and Farro With Caramelized Leek

    And to Drink …

    With this rich, creamy pasta dish, sweetened by cooked onions, you want a crisp, incisive white wine to contrast and refresh. I often recommend the realm of dry Italian whites. Why? Because they are so versatile with food, especially a dish like this one. Ligurian vermentino, Soave, Fianos from Campania, Etna Biancos and many more would be delicious. But you don’t have to restrict yourself to Italy. A village-level Chablis would go well, and so would an aligoté from Burgundy. Try a Sancerre or a grüner veltliner from Austria. Portugal makes some dry, non-oaky whites that I would not hesitate to open. Leaner chardonnays or sauvignon blancs from the West Coast would also work well. I personally would not reach for a red, but if you insist, look for something fresh and light. ERIC ASIMOV

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