Know Your Onions

It’s about time we got to know our alliums. Onions are a kitchen staple, an ingredient that brings its own distinctive flavour and aroma. Shallots, in the same family, are less understood but can be just as versatile.

Onions

It's shallots vs onions, and we're weighing them up for you. The pair belong to the allium family, which also includes garlic, leeks and chives, but have a flavour all their own.

Shallots are smaller than onions with a sweet, more subtle flavour. The most common type has light brown skin, while pink and grey shallots are crisper and have a stronger taste. Banana shallots are the largest variety and are named after their elongated shape. Thai shallots have a more pronounced taste, especially when they are fried.

These small alliums are available all year round but the British season runs from December to March, so there is no better time to try them. Peel and chop them finely to use them in dressings and sauces, or roast whole, with or without their skins.

For an elegant starter, try scallops with crispy shallots.

You can roast whole shallots and garlic bulbs in their skin alongside joints of meat for a sweet, nutty flavour.

Or for crisp-fried shallots, lightly salt sliced shallots and leave to one side for 15 minutes before rinsing, patting dry with kitchen paper and then deep-frying in hot vegetable oil until crisp.

In fact, one of the easiest ways to enjoy shallots is to caramelise them in a pan as their natural sugars create an intense, syrupy taste.

Shallots are often associated with French cooking and are a favourite of chef Michel Roux Jr. "Take a dozen shallots, peel them but leave them whole," he says. "Make a bag of aluminium foil and put the shallots inside with some olive oil or butter, a couple of sprigs of thyme, sea salt and a pinch of sugar. Close the bag and roast at 180C for 30 minutes, shaking once halfway through. Open the bag and let the shallots cool for a few moments before sprinkling with a little sherry vinegar. Serve with fish or roast meat."

But remember that their delicate flavour means that if a recipe specifies shallots, substituting onions won't give the same results.

TOP TIPS

  • Look for firm shallots with a dry, wispy skin and no soft spots, damp or mouldy patches, as these will keep well for a couple of months if you store them in a cool, dark, dry spot.

  • Peeling shallots can be fiddly work. Try blanching them for a few seconds in boiling water before draining and running through with cold water as this loosens the skin, making peeling much easier.

  • There is no foolproof way of avoiding streaming eyes, although some people are convinced that rinsing onions in cold water before chopping, or chewing piece of bread when cutting onions helps alleviate the symptoms. Top chefs such as Aldo Zilli and Gordon Ramsay chop onions under cold running water, or splash white vinegar over the cutting board prior to mounting their attack.