What are shallots?
Shallots, also known as eschalots or French shallots, are an onion relative that happens to have a smoother, more mellow onion flavour. Unlike onions, they grow in clusters like garlic bulbs.
There are two kinds that are common in Australian supermarkets: the golden-brown variety, and the deeper-red kind. Both are shallots, and both are slightly sweeter and less pungent than your usual onion. They’re prized for their unique ability to add a touch of sweetness to a dish without adding any unnecessary sharpness.
What is a spring onion?
The spring onion is an onion variety that has a small white bulb, and long green leaves and stems. This crisp plant is a form of immature onion. They’re a more mature version of the vegetable known as scallions or green onion, which has a similarly long green stem, but has no bulb.
While many people use the names ‘green onion’, ‘spring onion’ and ‘scallion’ interchangeably, the easiest way to see the difference between these plants is by looking at the life cycle of an onion. Here’s a quick step-by-step look at it.
Stages of onion maturity: how spring onions, scallions, and green onions differ
The least mature form of the three is what we call scallions. These long-stemmed, leafy plants have no bulbs, and they’re best chopped up and eaten raw as a topping over stir-fries, sauces, and salads. They’re quite mild in flavour compared to mature onions, so they’re best served fresh. Scallions look like fresh chives even as they’re growing, and are often substituted with chives in recipes. They are not chives, but if you don’t have any, they have such similar flavours that they can be swapped out with the other.
Green onions aka green shallots, on the other hand, also have those long and delicate green stem and leaves. But they have a small, slightly defined white bulb that easily defines one green onion bunch from a bunch of scallions. These are lovely in salads, and while they are often called spring onions here in Australia, they have a much less defined bulb compared to true spring onions.
Spring onions are somewhere in between a mature onion and a green onion in taste and maturity. They have even more defined, rounded bulbs and the most pungent taste of all the onion stages prior to full maturity. They can be eaten raw or cooked.
Because they’re very similar to green onions, these names are used interchangeably in Australia. The trick? The more prominent the bulb and the more pungent it is, the more likely it is to be a spring rather than a green onion.
Shallots vs spring onion: can they substitute each other?
Cooking with either of these varieties will impart a different flavour to a dish. Right off the bat, the general rule is that you shouldn’t substitute shallots with spring onions.
Because spring onions are used to add a bit of crunch and sharpness to a dish, they are often added raw to a recipe. Shallots, on the other hand, are softer and sweeter, and are usually added as a cooked ingredient. It’s not a good idea to substitute one with the other, as onions gain pungency over the stages of maturity and that pungency may be a crucial element of a dish.
What’s the difference?
Spring onions and shallots are really two very different ingredients, and it’s not advised to use one as a substitute for the other in a recipe. Shallots are much milder and sweeter, and spring onions may add some unwanted pungency when a dish calls for shallots instead!