By Melissa Clark, The New York Times

You may dote on your garlic, adore your onions, worship your shallots, but do you really know the difference between a spring onion and a scallion? A ramp and a ramson? A Welsh onion and a leek?

The base of countless dishes across nearly every cuisine, alliums are an essential kitchen staple. But they’re also bewildering, with unfixed and overlapping designations that can be difficult for even professionals to classify. (“Allium,” the Latin word for garlic, refers to a genus of plants that includes hundreds of species edible and decorative and sometimes both.)

Edible alliums are linked by their stink, a pronounced aroma caused by the sulfur compounds that make them up. This odoriferous character, ranging from sweet and herbal to strident and metallic, means you always know when there’s an allium in the room, often before it’s even sliced. It’s these same sulfurous vapors that can sting your eyes. (To curb any tears, chill especially aggressive varieties like onions and shallots before chopping.) But alliums’ harshness mellows considerably when cooked, their sugars browning and caramelizing. Or if using raw alliums, tame their bite by rinsing them under cool water or soaking them in an acid like lemon juice or vinegar for a few minutes before whisking into dressings and sauces.

Because there are so many different varieties with all their varying levels of pungency, even seasoned allium lovers can get confused as to the best ways to put each one to use (raw? simmered? caramelized?). To help clarify, here’s a guide for every cook looking to get the most out of everything from those first green ramps of the season all the way to the stalwart storing onions in winter’s depths.


The most potent of all alliums, garlic has been a love-it-or-hate-it proposition throughout history.

In the kitchen, it makes its presence known, especially when added raw to salads, sauces and relishes. But, cooked at low or moderate heat, its strident nature softens, becoming sweet and almost candylike. It’s best to avoid high heat when cooking garlic; once burned, its acrid flavor will taint everything else in the dish.

Cultivated garlic — as opposed to wild garlic, which is another species — falls into two main categories, hardneck and softneck (the neck is the garlic’s stalk). Softneck is what you’re most likely to see in supermarkets because it’s easier to grow and more shelf-stable. Hardneck garlic, such as rocambole, is grown in cooler climates, and has a more nuanced flavor that’s earthier and less sharp than softneck varieties. But it’s also expensive and can be hard to find outside farmers markets.