Culinary Arts

Scallions vs. Green Onions: What’s the Difference?

Written by MasterClass

Feb 7, 2019 • 8 min read

They’re found in every grocery store and in thousands of recipes, yet many cooks remain confused as to the difference between scallions and green onions. The only problem with scallions is one of terminology—otherwise, they’re easy to find and simple to cook.

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What Are Scallions?

Scallions are fresh young onions identified by their slender shape and mild flavor. The white stalk has the same sharp, sulfur-y taste characteristic to all alliums, albeit with less bite, while the dark green leaves have a fresher, grassy flavor. When just harvested, scallions give off a strong onion smell that’s noticeably bright and earthy, with notes of garlic and apple.

Like other alliums, scallions contain sulfuric compounds that protect them from predators. This is what makes you cry when chopping onions, and what gives raw onion its bite. (Tip: Toss onions in the fridge before slicing to avoid tears.) Onions take up sulfur from the soil to produce this defensive oil, which releases when they’re bitten or cut. When cooked, these chemicals transform from harsh to savory. The volatile oils escape whenever onions are damaged, so make sure to rinse scallions before cooking—when exposed to air, the scallions’ defense mechanism can taste extra harsh.

Are Scallions and Green Onions the Same Thing?

The terms scallion and green onion are used interchangeably to refer to members of the Allium cepa species with the following characteristics:

  • Long, tender green leaves
  • Stiff white stalks (no bulb) less than half an inch in diameter
  • Stringy white roots
  • Grown in bunches and harvested young

They’re the same thing—a scallion is a green onion is a scallion.

Where Did Scallions Come From?

The word scallion comes from the Greek askolonion, which refers to the ancient Palestinian port of Ashqelon, then considered the home of the onion. We now know that onions are native to central Asia, but the name stuck. Confusingly, askolonion is also the source of the word shallot, which can mean scallion in Australia, Canada, and the U.K., but refers to a completely different species here in the U.S. Scratching your head?

These mild, tender alliums most likely came to popularity as regular onions picked early in the growing season, before their bulbs fully developed and their green leaves dried out. Today, farmers grow multiple varieties of onion specifically bred to be harvested at this stage, such as Evergreen Hardy White and White Spear. While part of the same species as the common bulb onion, these scallion varieties, also called “bunching” due to the fact that they grow in small clusters, can be grown year-round, and never form a true bulb. It’s these varieties that you’ll find at supermarkets, labeled as both scallions and green onions.

chopped scallions in a bowl

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What’s the Best Way to Cut Scallions?

Scallions should be sliced—not chopped—using the entire length of the blade of a sharp knife. To slice scallions:

  • Lay a few scallions in a single layer
  • Place the tip of the blade against the cutting surface
  • Pull backwards steadily across the scallions

Do not chop scallions: Downward pressure can bruise their delicate leaves.

How to Pick the Best Scallions

When grocery shopping, choose scallions that have:

  • Firm, undamaged stalks
  • Bright green leaves
  • Moderately dry flesh (or, those that are not dried-out or slimy).

How to Properly Store Scallions

To keep scallions fresh, store them in the fridge, in a jar with about an inch of water. Place a bag over the greens and secure with a rubber band to keep them from wilting, and change the water every day or two.

Do Scallions Go Bad?

Scallions refrigerated in water can last a week or longer. You can also freeze sliced scallions to extend their shelf life, but their texture will change when defrosted, so previously frozen scallions should only be used in cooked preparations.

What Are the Health Benefits of Scallions?

Scallions are an excellent source of essential nutrients.

  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin), which is essential to energy production and metabolism.
  • Vitamin K, which plays a role in blood clotting and bone and muscle health.
  • Vitamin C, which is an antioxidant that supports the immune system.
  • Calcium, which maintains the structure of bones and teeth.
  • Iron, a component of hemoglobin, which transfers oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body.
  • Potassium, which supports kidney, heart, muscle, and nerve health.
  • Dietary fiber, which lowers risk of diabetes and heart disease.

The green tops of scallions are a very good source of:

  • Vitamin A, which supports the immune system and vision.
  • Vitamin B6, which plays a role in metabolism and the immune system.
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamin), which is integral to cell growth and function.
  • Phytonutrients (antioxidants), a broad class of plant-based compounds which promotes overall health.

What Part of the Scallion Can You Eat?

The entire scallion plant is edible, from its green stalks down to its white roots. Scallions are mild enough that both the whites and the greens can be eaten raw, as in scallion salad, a popular side dish for Korean barbecue, or as a crunchy garnish for soups and chili. Raw scallion whites and greens can be pickled whole or fermented in kimchi.

Whole scallions are delicious grilled or roasted—the leaves become charred, the whites tender and sweet, and the toasted roots have a nice crunch, like an onion chip. (While edible, raw scallion roots are typically too tough to enjoy.)

Many stir-fry recipes call for separating the whites and the greens. This method mellows out the sharp flavor of the bulb, while allowing the raw greens to stay fresh as a garnish. An added bonus? The scallion whites are usually the first ingredient in the wok, infusing the cooking oil with their aromatics and flavoring the rest of the stir-fry.

What’s a Good Substitute for Scallions?

As part of the genus Allium, scallions share their characteristic onion flavor with several edible species and hundreds of onion varieties. But because scallions have a milder flavor than most onions, direct substitutions can be tricky. A good rule of thumb, however, is to substitute bulbs for bulbs and leaves for leaves.

Substitutes for scallion whites include:

  • A small amount of bulb onion. Raw onions will have significantly more bit than scallions, so make sure to use less.
  • The white part of a leek. In cooked preparations, heat will soften the sting of a more traditional onion, but the sweetness will also become more pronounced. Leeks are a good substitute for cooked scallions as they are closer than a yellow onion to the desired clean, savory flavor.
  • Half the stated amount of spring onion. Spring onions have a stronger flavor than scallions and should be used in smaller amounts than what the recipe calls for.

For the best substitutes for scallion greens, try:

  • Fresh chives. When used as a garnish, fresh chives are a great substitution for scallion greens. Because chives have a milder flavor than scallions, you’ll need to use more of them, and they won’t have the same kick.
  • Spring onions. The tops of spring onions—if they aren’t too tough—provide the closest approximation to scallion greens.

Do not substitute the green tops of leeks for scallions—they’re too tough to use raw, and become slippery when cooked.

a bowl of shallots

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What’s the Difference Between Scallions and Shallots?

Shallots and scallions, while similar in name, are about as different in appearance and flavor as two onions can be. Shallots (also members of the Allium cepa species) have purple flesh, brown papery skins, and a garlicky flavor, while scallions are young onions with small white bulbs and edible leaves.

How to use shallots:

  • When raw, finely chopped shallots add a pleasing bite to vinaigrettes and mignonette sauce.
  • Cooking enhances their sweetness, but shallots, like garlic, can become bitter if browned.
  • Shallots are delicious roasted whole and essential to sauce Béarnaise.
  • Pickled shallots are a popular condiment in Southeast Asia and the U.K.
a bundle of spring onions

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What’s the Difference Between Scallions And Spring Onions?

The term spring onion generally refers to immature common onions harvested in the spring or summer while their leaves are tender and green and their bulbs are about one inch in diameter. Scallions, however, never develop a bulb and are planted and harvested throughout the year.

How to use spring onions:

  • Spring onions can have purple, white, or yellow bulbs and are often found at farmers’ markets in the spring and summer.
  • Unlike mature onions, which are usually dried, spring onions should be refrigerated.
  • Although the raw bulbs of spring onions have more bite than scallions, when sliced thickly and sautéed until tender, they become markedly sweet.
  • Spring onions can also be roasted whole, or used in frittata, soup, and ragout.
a bundle of chopped chives

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What’s the Difference Between Scallions and Chives?

Chives are the only true herb of the onion genus, and they’re actually a different species—Allium schoenoprasum—from scallions, bulb/spring onions, and shallots. Chives have tubular green leaves and a mild flavor that is more herbaceous and green than that of scallions.

How to use chives:

  • Chives should be cut with sharp scissors to avoid bruising, and can be stored in the fridge wrapped in a damp towel.
  • A small container of potted chives is easy to maintain indoors, as the leaves will grow back when cut.
  • Chives are typically used raw as a garnish for eggs, salads, and soups, and they’re delicious in herb dips and butters.

Chinese chives (aka garlic chives) are of another species: Allium tuberosum. They have flat leaves and a more intense, garlicky flavor than common chives, and they stand up to brief sautéing. Chinese chives are often blanched and served with pork dumplings, and make a delicious addition to frittata.

a box full of fresh leeks

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What’s the Difference Between Scallions and Leeks?

With their straight bulbs and dark green tops, leeks look a bit like oversize scallions, but they’re of the species Allium schoenoprasum. Their long white bulbs and tightly packed leaves are formed by “earthing up,” or mounding dirt around the base of the plant to block out light, which is why leeks are usually full of dirt and should be thoroughly washed before cooking.

How to use leeks:

  • The white and light green parts of leeks are often sautéed together for their creamy, mild onion flavor.
  • The tops of leeks, which are more cabbage-like in flavor, are useful too: Leek greens become mucilaginous when cooked, adding thickness to vichyssoise and other vegetable soups and broths.
  • Whole boiled leeks are the star of the classic French side dish leeks vinaigrette.

Are Scallions a Healthy Diet Food?

Scallions contain less carbohydrates and protein than other onions; moderate amounts of scallions—especially the greens—are a good option for adding flavor and nutrients to a most healthy diets, including keto.