31 Days of Vegetables

What Are Leeks? What You Know to Select and Cook With Leeks

updated Jul 30, 2020
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Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

It often seems like the leek — a mild-mannered cousin to the onion — plays second-fiddle to other vegetables in dishes, but any symphony fan knows you need all the fiddles to get a full sound. And leeks are more than capable of shining when they get a chance to solo. Here’s what makes the leek so great, and how to make the most of it in your kitchen.

What Are Leeks?

Leeks are part of the allium family — cousins to garlic, onions, shallots, and chives. And although they tend to be milder, there’s enough flavor that you know where they come from. Instead of growing in a bulb the way onions and garlic do, the leek plant grows into a stalk made of tightly packed layers. The outer layers turn tough, green, and leaf-like, while the inner layers remain tender and white.

How Nutritious Are Leeks?

A standard leek is about 4.3 ounces and, when cooked, contains about 38 calories and 1.2 grams of fiber (which is just 4% of your dv). It’s not very high in many nutrients, but it does contain 20% dv of vitamin A (the one you need for good vision).

The Leek Top 5

Five learned links for leek-lovers.

  1. Leeks are often left in the ground and harvested as needed through the winter. Why? Because they taste better after a frost.
  2. Leeks will also regrow from their kitchen scraps.
  3. Washing them can be a little tricky, but we have some tips for making it easier.
  4. Don’t waste the greens! They can be woven together to make a party-ready food mat.
  5. The greens are also great when flavoring chicken stock — or any stock, really.

How to Choose the Best Leeks

According to Vegetable Butcher Cara Mangini, you want to maximize the edible portion by looking for ones with the most white and light green, and the least dark green. And it’s a good idea to buy ones with the roots attached — that helps keep it from drying out before you buy it. Once home the leeks will keep for a couple weeks if kept dry (unwashed) in an open plastic bag.

How to Clean and Cut Leeks

The first step to cooking with leeks is cleaning them, and to clean them you need to cut them.

This is because leeks like loose, sandy soil, and because they grow in tightly compressed layers, the layers push up through the soil, trapping dirt. So the first step is to trim the tops and then carefully slice them in half, revealing all the layers. Then rinse each half in cold water, opening up the layers so the dirt washes out. After, you can prepare as you like! Here’s a handy step-by-step guide, with photos, for reference.

The Best Ways to Cook Leeks

The absolute classic leek dish remains a simple French potato and leek soup. It can be made country-style, or blended with cream, puréed, and chilled into a vichyssoise. But if you really want to highlight the flavor the veggie, grill them and serve with vinaigrette.

Leeks vs. Green Onions

At a brief glance it might be easy to confuse leeks with green onions, also known as scallions. Both are oniony alliums with green stalks, white bottoms, short roots, and no bulbs. Green onions, however, are much smaller, and much more potent. They are also often used as a garnish, as the plants are much more tender. And as opposed to just eating the white part, with green onions you can eat most of the green part as well.

No Fresh Leeks? What to Substitute.

In a pinch, depending on the recipe, you can use a mild-flavored onion in place of sautéed or chopped leeks in a soup or cooked recipe. Shallots, which are themselves mild flavored, will also work. You might also use green onions, but be aware that they will taste much stronger.

The Best Ways to Use Up Leftover Leeks

Too many leeks is never a problem! Sauté them into a confit and put them on sandwiches or salads. Braise them with wine and garlic for an all-purpose side dish. Whip them up in a skillet with eggs — either by just stirring them into a scramble, or by getting fancy. And if you’re still searching, here are a handful of other ideas.

Our Top 10 Leek Recipes

What’s your favorite recipe or use for leeks? Any favorite way to cook it?

31 Days of Vegetables: How to fall in love with vegetables in 31 days. How many of these splendid veg have you eaten this month? Take a look at the whole list and take our July challenge to eat every single one!