Q. What’s the difference between scallions and green onions? Can one be substituted for the other? — Bill
A. There is no difference. Zip, nada, zilch. Whether they’re called scallions or green onions seems to be largely a matter of geography. In the mid-Atlantic coastal states and New England they’re more likely to be called scallions; everywhere else, they’re green onions. Even that, however, is far from absolute these days, although probably truer in the past when fewer people moved from place to place.
Scallions/green onions aren’t even a separate species of onion. The Allium genus includes more than a thousand species, among them garlic, onions, leeks, ramps, chives, and shallots, as well as flowering varieties such as Allium giganteum, those huge purple balls of tiny blossoms mounted on tall stems that appear in spring. (The members of the Allium species are also closely related to lilies.) Scallions/green onions are actually immature common yellow, red, and white onions, harvested before the bulb begins to form. Though the ones found in grocery stores are usually young white or yellow onions, occasionally green red onions (how’s that for confusing?) can be found in specialty stores or early farmers’ markets. They make a colorful addition to spring salads and dishes. “Spring onions” and “salad onions” are other aliases for immature onions. Sometimes these terms are also used to denote onions whose bulbs have just begun to form — still mild and sweet but with a bit more pronounced flavor. One thing a scallion is not is a shallot, even though the definition of “scallion” in some nonculinary dictionaries is “shallot.” This misnomer probably occurs because “échalion” is another name for the shallot, derived from the French échalote. Shallots have a distinctive taste, but the flavor is closer to that of mature onions than to that of scallions. Like most produce grown in cold-weather areas, green onions used to be seasonal, only eaten in the spring. Produce farmers planted whole rows to take to market; home gardeners sowed onion seed thickly, then thinned the rows so bulbs would have room to form. In my family, the first green onions were an eagerly awaited treat, even when green onions became available year-round in grocery store. They even had their own special container, an antique spoon jar, in which they appeared nightly on the dinner table for a few weeks. Those first local spring scallions are worth seeking out; they’re milder, sweeter, and more flavorful than their grocery-store cousins shipped from faraway places. When buying scallions, make sure that the green part is dark green, with no yellow or chartreuse. When fresh, scallions are absolutely straight; when they’re curved, they’ve begun to dry out. A very slight curve might not be too bad, especially if the scallions will be cooked, but avoid any that are beginning to look C-shaped. As a general rule, the thinner the scallion, the milder the taste. Whether you use scallions cooked or raw in recipes, save some of the greens for garnish. They look fine slivered straight across but even better when thinly sliced diagonally. Another nicely different touch is to tear the greens lengthwise into thin shreds. They’ll curl slightly and look almost exotic mounded into a little heap. Chill them in cold water for a half-hour or more and they’ll turn into corkscrews. Asians use whole green onions to make scallion brushes: Cut off the root and trim the green so it’s approximately the same length as the white. Leaving 1 to 2 inches in the middle uncut, use the tip of a sharp paring knife to make vertical cuts through and all around the white part, cutting it into shreds that are still attached to the middle; repeat with the green part. Place the scallions in a large bowl of cold water and refrigerate them for at least an hour or as long as overnight. The cut parts will curl up tightly to form frilly ends. You can also leave the white part whole and just cut the green. Scallions also make a wonderful side dish. Cut off the root ends and trim the greens so they’re all the same size. Simmer just until the whites are barely tender, four or five minutes, then drain them, drizzle them with a little melted butter, and perhaps sprinkle chopped fresh dill over them. In the South, they’re sometimes cooked in cream. Green onions are also delicious grilled or griddled. Larger green onions work best. Trim the root and green ends and brush the onions lightly with oil or melted butter. Grill them over medium low heat, placing the white parts over the heat source and the greens away from it, just until the whites are crisp-tender. If the green parts start to brown, place foil underneath them. Whether they’re called scallions or green onions, they’re versatile and delicious.
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