All About Allium Vegetables

With the recent press on alliums such as onions and garlic protecting against both cardiovascular disease and cancer, we asked a friendly vegetable expert to tell us more about this family of vegetables.

(from the staff of

How would we cook without onions and garlic? Sautéed in canola or olive oil, they are key ingredients in many tasty and healthful vegetarian meals. These versatile vegetables are high in beneficial sulfur compounds, giving them their distinctive flavor and aroma. Onions and garlic belong to the Allium genus. Allium, in fact, is derived from the Greek word for garlic. Shallots, leeks, and chives are also members of the allium family.

Onions have been cultivated for thousands of years and originated in the Near East and Central Asia. They were grown not only for use in cooking, but for their antiseptic qualities. In Egypt, onions were used in mummification. The most familiar allium is the common, or bulb, onion of the species Allium cepa, which may have a yellow, white, red, or purple skin. While onions may be fresh, they are most commonly purchased dried. Fresh, also called “sweet”, onions have a milder taste. Dry, also called “storage,” onions, have a stronger flavor. Dry onions have thick, paper-like skins. The vast majority of onions purchased at the supermarket are yellow storage onions. Pungent yellow onions are the best “keepers” and are great additions to soups and stews, while red onions are very sweet, but a poor choice for long-term storage. Red onions are good sliced and eaten raw in salads or sandwiches, or for topping a veggie burger. Common mild onions include Bermuda and Spanish varieties. Pearl onions -- which are most often white -- are the tiniest of the bulb onions, and are the top choice for boiling or pickling.

Many people think that scallions are a type of onion, but in fact they’re simply the immature plants of any bulbing onion, harvested before the bulb is fully formed. Scallions may also be called spring onions, green onions, or salad onions. The green tops and the white root (the developing bulb) of scallions are both eaten. One type of onions, commonly called “bunching onions,” are members of the species Allium fistulosum. They’re called bunching onions because they’re usually sold in bunches at supermarket. Bunching onions produce the best scallions with a milder taste than other onion varieties.

A native to Central Asia, garlic (Allium sativum) has historically been prized for both culinary and medicinal use. Garlic has the strongest flavor of all the alliums. A hardy perennial, garlic grows as bulbs, which are made up of cloves. One type of garlic that has become popular recently is Elephant garlic, which is a separate species (Allium scorodoprasum or Allium ampeloprasum). Elephant garlic has huge, very mild heads, and can either be sliced and eaten raw in salads or cooked and used as a substitute for onions.

It’s believed that shallots (Allium ascalonium) found their way to Europe by way of the Crusaders from Ascalon, an ancient Israeli city, from which shallots get their botanical name. Like their garlic cousins, shallots grow as bulbs divided into cloves -- usually two, but occasionally as many as ten. Shallot bulbs grow in clusters. Shallots have a distinctive tapered shape that sets them apart from other members of the onion family. Most often a copper brown color, they may also be reddish or gray. Their flavor, sometimes described as a blend of sweet onion and garlic, make them a favorite of gourmet chefs.

Leeks (Allium ampeloprasum var. porrum) are the largest member of the allium family and look like gigantic scallions. They may grow up to two feet long and two inches thick, and they do not form a bulb. France, Belgium, and the Netherlands lead the world in leek production, and leeks are often featured in French, Belgian, and Dutch cooking. Also called “poor man’s asparagus,” leeks are a good complement to potatoes -- in potato leek soup, for example. Wild leeks, or ramps, are a spring delicacy in eastern North America.

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) look like tall tufts of grass. A hardy perennial, chives are in fact closely related to grass. Chives can be clipped with scissors to use straight from the garden: to top a baked potato with vegan sour cream, or to add a mild onion flavor to dips, salads, or soups. Garlic chives (Allium tubersosum), also called Chinese chives or Oriental chives, are good as a mild substitute for garlic.

Why not experiment by adding different types of alliums to your meals -- to spice up your soups, stews, dips, and salads!

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