With their delicate, sweet and onion-like flavor, leeks are a versatile and aromatic vegetable used in a variety of dishes and recipes. Leeks have a strong presence in various European cuisines, including Britsh, Mediterranean, French and Belgian as well as in certain Asian cuisines. They serve both as a main ingredient and as a flavor enhancer in a wide range of dishes.
But if not available, what are the best substitutes for leek? What can be used as leek alternatives should they be out of season, not fresh or out of stock? When in need of leeks for a recipe, here is a list of leek substitutes that can be used in various culinary applications.
What are leeks?
Leeks are monocotyledonous vegetables belonging to the Allium genus or family group. They are related to onions, garlic, chives and shallots which are all alliums. With their long, cylindrical stalk consisting of layers of leaf sheaths, they certainly have a distinctive appearance. The lower part of the stalk is white while the upper part is light green ending in long dark green flat straplike leaves.
The cultivation of leeks dates back to 2000 years BC, during the times of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. Leeks are known to be in season during the fall and winter months, however, depending on the region the cultivation of leeks in summer is also possible, essentially making it a year-round vegetable. Winter leeks are known to be thicker and more flavorful than the summer leek variation.
What do leeks taste like?
Leeks have a distinctive taste that can be described as mild and sweet with a subtle onion-like flavor. However, it is slightly less pungent and intense than that of an onion. Their flavor profile becomes even milder, sweeter and more buttery when braised or cooked.
Their refined, delicate taste adds depth and extra complexity to a whole range of dishes like stocks and soups.
Culinary use of leek
Their complex and aromatic taste, coupled with the fact that every part of the vegetable can be eaten, makes leeks a popular and highly versatile ingredient in the kitchen for a wide range of culinary uses.
It is mostly the white and light green part of the leeks that can be cooked, braised, stir-fried, sautéed, grilled, caramelized or eaten raw, like in this creamy leek dip. The dark green leaves are tougher and less tender with a more robust taste, and while most people discard them, they can also be used to infuse various dishes or to provide extra depth of flavor to soups, stews and stocks. Even the leek roots can be eaten when cooked properly.
Why use leek alternatives?
While leeks are such a delicious and great ingredient to use in the kitchen, why would anyone need to look for any leek alternatives or leek substitutes? Here are some reasons why:
- Availability: If you prefer to buy fresh and local, leeks might not always be readily available in certain countries or regions.
- Seasonal: Even though leeks are usually available all-year-round, fresh leeks might not always be available in your supermarket at certain times of the year, depending on the region.
- Cost: When in season, leeks are relatively budget friendly, but out of season they might become pricey which is when you might want to find a more budget friendly alternative.
- Preference: Some people may not enjoy the taste or texture of leek or they have sensitivity or allergies to them.
Best leek substitutes for cooking
When it comes to finding the right substitute for leeks, the other members of the Allium family will be the best choice flavor wise. But there are other leek alternatives that have a similar flavor profile or texture that can also be used, especially when the leek is used to add extra flavor to a dish. When leek is the main ingredient, rather choose a substitute from the onion family for the best results.
Scallions or green onions
Although smaller in size, scallions or green onions are the most similar in appearance to leeks. They are also cylindrical without a bulb and they have a white stalk and hollow green leaves at the top which can all be used in cooking. Green onions also have a similar mild onion-like flavor profile compared to leeks, making them a great leek substitute.
Scallions also tend to be more available and budget friendly compared to freshly harvested leeks.
Tip: In general, scallions are used raw to flavor salads, stir fries or for garnishing soups and stews. As for a leek substitute, the whole green onion, white and dark green, can be used in an equal amount (1:1) quantity.
Spring onions are often confused with green onions, and while they can be substituted for each other, they are not the same vegetable. Spring onions are in fact early harvested onions with long green leaves and a small bulb. Green onions or scallions on the other hand never grow a bulb, much like leeks.
Spring onions are onions harvested early with an immature bulb, resulting in a beautifully mellow and tender taste and less pungent than a regular onion. Similar to leeks, the green stems can be used to add depth of flavor to soups, stews and stock while the white part can be used as a substitute for a recipe that calls for leeks.
Yellow onions have a more bold and robust flavor making them a great alternative in recipes where leek is the main ingredient, especially in soups, casseroles, stocks and stews. Due to their stronger and richer taste, they pack a bunch of flavor when longer cooking is involved. Even when yellow onions are slowly braised and caramelized bringing out their natural sugars, they have a relatively more potent aroma than any of the other leek alternatives.
Tip: Use an equal ratio (1:1) for recipes where leek is the main ingredient.
Shallots are one of the best substitutes for leek as they have the most similar flavor profile. Belonging to the allium cultivar or onion family, shallots are smaller in size and have a more subtle and milder taste than onions. Their taste can be described as mildly pungent with a hint of garlic when raw, making them great to use in salads and dressings.
When cooked or roasted, shallots become beautifully sweet and mild making them a great substitute for leeks in a whole range of dishes that call for leek as the main ingredient.
Tip: Depending on the size of the shallots, as their size varies a lot, you will need to substitute 1 stalk of leek (white and light green) with 2-3 shallots.
Red / White / Sweet onion
Due to their mild flavor they are great to use raw in salads, dressings and sauces when finely chopped or thinly sliced. When red or white onions are braised, they become tender and take on a rich, caramelized taste giving each dish a sweet and savory depth of flavor.
While the yellow onion is great for soups and stocks, the sweeter onions are better used raw in salads, salsa’s, dressings or when a good caramelization is required like in quiches.
Tip: Use an equal (1:1) ratio as an alternative for leeks.
Green garlic is an immature garlic plant harvested early before the bulb is fully developed. Green garlic has a mild, fresh flavor compared to mature garlic, and with its slender green leaves and light colored bulb it rather resembles a spring onion in appearance.
With its delicate garlicky taste it is the preferred choice when wanting to add a garlicky depth of flavor to any dish without the pungent intensity of a mature garlic bulb. Both the bulb and the green leaves can be used for cooking making it a versatile ingredient to add taste to a whole range of dishes, cold and warm.
Chives are the only herb within the onion or allium cultivar consisting of just bright green long needle-like stems without a bulb. Even though leeks and chives are members of the same family, their flavor profile is very different when used in cooking. Chives are a great substitutes when leeks are not the main ingredient. They are mainly used as a garnish for eggs, quiches, in soups, salads, salsa’s or dips. They provide a lovely mild onion and garlic aroma slightly less pronounced then leek.
So chives do well in recipes where a hint of leek is required for extra depth of flavor, but where leek is not the main ingredient.
Leek powder is usually made from finely ground dried leek leaves. It’s a great way to re-use the green part of the leek while adding a punch of flavor to any dish calling for the taste of leek, without needing the vegetable itself. It’s mainly used to infuse stocks, casseroles, soups and stews.
Tip: Use a ratio of 1 teaspoon of leek powder for one whole leek.
Garlic or onion powder
While less effective than leek powder, garlic and/or onion powder can be a great alternative for dishes where leeks are added for extra onion flavor.
Tip: Use 1 teaspoon of garlic or onion powder for one leek.
Which dish doesn’t get better after adding garlic? Even though garlic is quite pungent and robust, it is a fabulous flavor enhancer to a whole range of dishes. As garlic is also a member of the Allium family, it can also be used as a leek substitute. Add a bit of extra garlic to any cooked dish where leeks are used as a flavor enhancer for extra depth of flavor.
Wild garlic or ramps
With their long, lance-shaped green leaves and distinct but less pungent aroma than garlic, they are generally used in salads, soups or for making pesto. Wild garlic, also known as ramps, ramsons or bear’s garlic is a wild but edible plant belonging to the Allium family group, usually available in the wild during spring. They can be used raw or cooked.
Celery and celery leaves
Celery is not a member of the onion family, nor does it have a similar flavor profile to leeks, but with its versatile flavor it is nevertheless a popular addition in many recipes. It has a crisp texture with a distinct, mildly bitter, fresh, earthy aroma.
Celery as a substitution for leeks works mainly for cooked dishes where a bit of texture is needed as they require similar cooking methods. It is also often more readily available and a more economical alternative.
When finely chopped, celery leaves can be used to garnish soups, stews and casseroles in order to give a dish that extra bit of flavor.
As with celery, fennel has a different flavor profil than leeks but can still be used as an aromatic in certain recipes where leek is a flavor enhancer and not the main ingredient. When eaten raw, fennel has a mild anise and liquorice taste, but when cooked its flavor becomes milder and sweeter.
When used in cooking, braising or roasting, fennel bulbs have a similar texture to leeks. As for raw fennel, it’s lovely to eat raw like in this shaved fennel salad or as an addition to other salads but I would not use it raw as a leek alternative.
Tip: Use a ratio of 1:1 when using it in cooked dishes.
What is the best substitute for leeks in cooking?
In conclusion, there are plenty of choices available as alternatives to leeks in cooking. Depending on the recipe and the role leeks play, whether as a main ingredient, a complementary element or a flavor enhancer, various options can be used in different quantities and ratios, depending on the desired flavor and outcome of the dish.