Pearl onions, also known as baby onions, usually come in a dried form, and they have numerous uses in the kitchen. While the attribute pearl is commonly associated with white color, pearl onions can also be red or brown – but not as commonly.
However, if you’re unable to find pearl onions in your local grocery store, this doesn’t mean that you have to change the entire recipe. A good pearl onions substitute will give you similar results in all your cooked meals and salads.
If you’re looking for an adequate pearl onions alternative, keep on reading to discover the top options.
The best substitutes for pearl onions
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We already know that many cooked meals, including different kinds of stews, meat-based dishes, and soups would not be the same without onions. Onions are pretty much the staple ingredient in all kinds of diets and cuisines, and it is hard to replace them.
Luckily, there are many onion varieties to choose from, and they’re pretty much interchangeable. It depends on your personal preferences and the flavors you like to achieve in your cooking.
When it comes to white pearl onions, in particular, they do tend to have a bit sweeter, milder taste than regular-size white onions. They’re also not as pungent and spicy, which makes them a great alternative for people who cannot handle the depth of flavor of other kinds of onions.
If you don’t like fresh onions, you’ll definitely love pickled, canned pearl onions. These little onions make for a beautiful garnish, and they’re an amazing addition to any salad, sandwich, or snack. They’ll provide just the right amount of crunchiness and pungency.
Also, if you have a sensitivity to the pungency and aroma of onions and you find it hard to peel and dice them for your dishes, you can expect pearl onions to be milder in this area. Nevertheless, they can get quite tricky to peel, considering their shape and size.
When peeling pearl onions, it is best not to rely on the techniques and methods you normally use to peel an onion. It will probably take a lot of time and effort. All you need to do is bring a pot of water to a boil and add the onions in.
Let them sit in boiling water for about 30 seconds, then remove them from the pot and add them to a bowl filled with water and ice. After a couple of minutes, you can proceed to peel them effortlessly – as the skins will practically fall off.
In case you’re out of pearl onions and you don’t feel like grocery shopping, here are some ways to substitute these little white onions in your cooking.
1. Frozen Pearl Onions
The most obvious solution when you’re looking for a substitute for pearl onions would be frozen pearl onions. While many people assume that frozen veggies tend to lose their crucial nutrients and aren’t as good as fresh produce, this is actually a common misconception.
For instance, it is better to use frozen vegetables than fresh ones if they’re out of season. This ensures that you’re buying a quality, delicious product. Also, frozen pearl onions are extremely easy to use.
For the majority of your dishes, you won’t even have to bother defrosting the onions. Just toss them in the pan and stir them for a couple of minutes until they’ve released the excess moisture. For salads and garnish, we do recommend defrosting them at room temperature.
2. Canned Pearl Onions
If you need a quick solution, canned pearl onions make for a great substitute for frozen pearl onions. They’re just as easy to use, as there’s no peeling involved, so you can skip the entire peeling process we’ve discussed.
Also, with canned pearl onions, you don’t have to think about defrosting the onions one way or another – they’re ready to use right away! Of course, they will often be in some kind of marinade, so keep that in mind when using them in your recipes.
Make sure to take a bite before adding them to your dishes, as they can often be quite salty or sour, which could impact the flavor profile of your dish. If you want to get rid of these flavors, simply rinse them under cold water.
While shallots are practically not onions, they do taste, smell, and cook similarly to onions. As opposed to pearl onions, shallots are elongated, and their flesh is usually purple, while they have pink-reddish skin.
Shallots make for a great pearl onion substitute, as they’re remarkably milder than most kinds of onions – just like pearl onions. The flavor is more on the sweet side, but they do offer a dose of pungency and tanginess you need for your onion-based dishes.
Another difference between shallots and onions is that they’re softer in texture, which allows them to cook faster and caramelize better. They’re also an amazing choice for salads, just like pearl onions.
4. Cocktail Onions
Cocktail onions are a great frozen pearl onions substitute if you’re looking for a quick, convenient solution. Also, you probably don’t want to bother with peeling the onions. They are essentially pearl onions, but seasoned and pickled.
In addition to pearl onions, many people pickle other kinds of onions, including crystal wax onions. However, you may be able to find varieties such as red onion in this kind of brine. Keep in mind that cocktail onions are usually sweeter and more seasoned than canned.
Besides being used in cooking and salads, cocktail onions are popularly used as a garnish, especially for cocktails – hence the name.
5. Boiling Onions
Boiling onions pretty much deliver everything you would want in a pearl onions substitute. They’re small (not as small as pearl onions) and softer in texture when cooked. Their flavor is certainly more on the sweet side as opposed to spicy and pungent.
The name boiling onions come from the fact that they’re usually used whole. They’re added into stews, soups, salads, and pretty much any dish without being chopped or diced. As opposed to chopped onions, they retain their structure and texture this way.
When it comes to peeling boiling onions, we’d suggest the same method as with pearl onions. Boil them for no longer than 30 seconds, then add them to a bowl with ice and water and let them sit for a bit.
These onions are a real hit in Italy, but they’re used in other cuisines, as well. Just like pearl onions, they have a distinctive sweetness, which makes them an ideal choice for caramelization.
Also, you’ll love cipollini if you tend to avoid the overbearing, pungent flavor of other popular onion varieties. Similar to pearl onions, they can be used raw, cooked, caramelized, or pickled, depending on your preference.
They pair well with all kinds of meats, fish, as well as condiments, and sauces. When shopping for cipollini, just like any other onion kind, make sure to choose firm bulbs without any soft spots or damages.
7. Green onions
Green onions, also known as scallions, are basically young onions harvested before the bulb has been formed completely. They can actually come from different onion varieties, but in all cases, the bulb is yet to be formed.
While they can be a bit more pungent than pearl onions, they’re still milder and subtler than regular, “full-size” onions. While the white part of green onions is used just like any other onion, the green part should not be thrown away, as it also has many uses.
Chopped-up green parts of these onions can be used in all kinds of dips, condiments, sauces, as well as cooked dishes. It is also a great choice to decorate the plate and finish off the dish.
Even though they resemble green onions, they’re actually quite different both in texture and flavors. When compared to regular onions, they’re still on the milder side, but leeks are usually more flavorful and aromatic than green onions.
However, when cooked, leeks release their unique, characteristic sweetness which can contribute to any dish. Especially if you combine them with meat!
When used raw, they have much more spiciness and pungency, but this flavor still isn’t too dominant.
Leeks can replace pearl onions in all scenarios, from sauces and dips to stews and soups. They’re also a delicious choice for salads and burger dressings.
9. Red Onions
Red onions are not the best replacement for pearl onions when it comes to shape and size. However, if you’re in need of chopped onion for your recipe, you can get delicious results with red onions. They’re also very decorative due to their red, purple, and pink tones.
Although they’re certainly bigger than pearl onions, red onions are considered medium onions, and their bulbs usually don’t get bigger than 6 inches in diameter.
Although they are pungent and sometimes spicy, they do offer the sweetness you’d expect from a pearl onions substitute. Needless to say, if you use them raw, you can expect the pungency and spiciness to be more pronounced.
10. Brown Onions
When you picture onions, the first notion that comes to mind is probably brown onions. Whenever we referred to onions as “regular” onions, this is the variety we had in mind, since they’re the most common type of onions.
While brown onions are certainly much bigger than pearl onions, you cannot go wrong with them for any kind of recipe. If you prefer the pungent, dominant flavor, you can use them raw. Sauteeing or frying them will reveal a whole other dimension of flavor – mostly sweet.
11. Supasweet Onions
Just like the name itself implies, Supasweet onions are dominantly sweet, and much milder than brown onions and similar varieties.
These onions can be used fresh in your salads and sandwiches. They aren’t as acidic as normal onions, so they’re alright even if you have a sensitive stomach.
Another thing people love about this kind of onions is that they don’t cause nearly as much crying as brown onions, due to their mild, mostly sweet aroma.
How to choose a pearl onions substitute
In case you need a similar option, and you don’t wish to experiment, you can always go with canned or frozen pearl onions. Cocktail onions are often pearl onions but marinated, so keep in mind there will be some seasoning involved.
The closest alternative to pearl onions when it comes to both size and flavor are boiling onions and shallots. Cipollini, on the other hand, tends to be slightly bigger, but it still belongs to the group of sweet onions, just like Supasweet onions.
With green onions and leeks, you’ll still get the mild aroma you’re looking for, and the green parts can be used in a variety of dishes, from salads and dips to soups and sauces.
Finally, red and brown onions don’t fit the picture when it comes to size and shape, but they’re extremely versatile, delicious solutions for pretty much any recipe you can think of. Keep in mind that red onions are sweeter than brown onions – especially raw.
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