I recently began testing a quiche recipe for an upcoming whole grains breakfast class I'm teaching here in Seattle. I'd made the recipe once before many months ago, but I wanted to test it again to refresh my memory before getting in front of a room of students. Back then, I'd written the recipe to call for shallots, but when I went to pick up the ingredients last week, two grocery stores in a row were out, so I buckled and bought a white onion instead. Was the result the same?
Before getting to the difference between shallot and onion in a recipe, I will tell you the white onion was quite a bit cheaper. Shallots, I find, are often twice as expensive as white onions, so that was an immediate draw. It also got me thinking how sometimes people read recipes and find shallots fussy and more expensive, so they just use onion instead. Do you?
Price aside, I was curious to see if the taste would differ and it actually did. I found myself missing the shallots. Here's where I found the main difference: shallots have a really nice way of incorporating themselves more fully into sauces or custards (such as a quiche) whereas onions, even if chopped finely, will largely maintain their shape so you'll have little bits of onion in your recipe. That's not what I was going for with the quiche recipe. I wanted the savory onion flavor without the chunks of onion, and that's what shallots did for me.
Speaking of flavor, I found that to be a bit different, too. The flavor of an onion, even a mellow white onion, is a bit more agressive than a shallot and it was much more present in the quiche. Again, not quite what I was shooting for.
A few years ago, Emma said of shallots: "Shallots have actually become our top choice for most preparations calling for raw onions. They are sweeter and more mild than either yellow or red onions, and have a pleasant crispness in salad dressings and grain salads." So while it's always nice to save a buck or two, I'm not convinced that shallots and onions are swappable in a recipe. If it's something forgiving like a chunky tomato sauce, sure. But if it's a dish with some sense of subtlety like a quiche, creamy sauce, or vinaigrette, adding shallots to the shopping list is the safest bet.
(Image: Faith Durand)