The ability to discern the taste of individual ingredients is one of the key skills that all chefs and home cooks need to have. But with thousands of ingredients, it can be daunting to distinguish the taste of one ingredient from others. Take leeks, for example. We know it is from the onion family but does it really taste like onion? If not, what do leeks taste like?
Let us first get a clear understanding of what this vegetable is before we begin describing its taste. Leek belongs to the family of vegetables known as “Allum”. These include onions, scallions, shallots, garlics, Chinese onions, and chives. In the scientific community, leek is known as Allium ampeloprasum. This vegetable has many cultivars or varieties. Each one can impart a different flavor.
Leeks have a thick and cylindrical root. This is edible and often comes in white color. The root gives way to the stalk before it branches out into flat, green leaves. It does not produce cloves or form bulbs. It comes with a juicy texture while imparting a distinct flavor. Chefs say that leeks are the sweetest and mildest-flavored onions.
Leek and What it Tastes Like
Describing the taste of leek can be hit-or-miss. Though one can describe it has having an onion flavor, one has to realize that there are also different varieties of onions. There are those that have a mild taste while others have a hint of sweetness to them. There are also those that have a very strong onion taste. As such, when we say that leeks have a mild onion taste, it would be very difficult to quantify the “mildness” of the taste.
There is also the issue of one’s taste buds. There are people who have very sensitive taste buds that they can distinguish very minute differences in flavors. Others may require stronger flavors before they can start to appreciate the taste.
One also has to consider the manner in which the vegetable is prepared or cooked. If eaten raw, it is possible to identify the distinct flavor. Unfortunately, if you put this in a salad with your choice dressing, the flavor gets mixed with those coming from the other ingredients. Cooking it will also result in a different taste. For example, boiling leeks will often dilute its oniony taste. Sautéing or stir-frying it may enhance its flavor because the oil seals it in.
It is safe to say that leeks have a ‘tamer’ flavor profile than that of onions. You can also consider it as a subtler version of onion. However, do not get the impression that you can substitute leeks for onions. If the recipe calls for leeks, then you should always use leeks. If the dish requires onions, then you have to put onions.
Different Leek Varieties and Their Taste
It is true that leeks have a milder flavor than your typical onion. However, not all varieties are the same. Some have a milder, almost unrecognizable flavor. Others may offer your dish a different kind of sweetness. Since different leek varieties have different flavor profiles, it would be best to learn some of them.
This leek variety has pale green foliage and long, white shanks. Chefs love it and consider it as a gourmet baby. It has a very subtle flavor, making it perfect for salads, sauces, soups, and vegetable dishes. When cooked, it can impart a creamy richness to the dish.
- King Richard
The green leaves of this cultivar have a stronger and richer onion flavor than other types of leeks. Its white stalks, however, have a milder flavor. Because of its size and compact stem, it is ideal for grilling, although it works well in salads, too. King Richards are also excellent for stews, soups, and stir-fries.
- Giant Bulgarian
With its light-green leaves, the Giant Bulgarian is a favorite in many kitchens. They are very easy to work with. The white stalks or shanks are long and thin. This leek variety has a sweet flavor to it that complements its mild oniony taste.
- Giant Musselburgh
If there is a leek variety that home cooks pass on to the next generation, then that would be the Giant Musselburgh. It has a thick stalk, often reaching up to 3 inches in diameter. Despite its thickness, however, the stalk is very tender and possesses a very mild flavor.
The Varna can grow thick 10-inch stems with blue-green leaves. They have a mild and sweet onion flavor to them that makes them ideal for salads. They can also be great for soups and stews.
- Bleu de Solaise
Growing up to 20 inches tall, the Bleu de Solaise can have a deep blue hue in its leaves. In some cases, it can turn violet. It also has a mild oniony flavor with a certain level of sweetness to it.
Chefs like using the Lancelot because of its upright blue-green leaves. It grows up to 14 inches long and has a thick stem. Like other leek varieties, the Lancelot offers a mild oniony flavor.
- American Flag
The American Flag is longer than the Lancelot by about 4 inches. It also has a thicker stem, often reaching up to 1.5 inches in diameter. The interior comes in snowy white color and can impart a mild flavor.
Picking the Right Leeks
One of the most common sources of frustration among new home cooks is picking the right ingredients for their recipes. A recipe may write “leeks” as one of the ingredients. But, it does not tell the new cook which leeks to buy. Considering that there are also hundreds of varieties of leeks, choosing can be especially daunting.
As already mentioned, leek varieties have different flavor profiles. Some tend to be sweet, while others are more content on imparting a mild oniony flavor. There are also those with large stems or stalks. Beginning home cooks will have no way of telling whether they are using the right leek for the dish or not. The leaves of the leek also matter. Some have a stronger flavor than others.
Everything depends on what you are going to cook or prepare. For instance, if you are going to make a salad, it is best to go for young leeks. They are more tender and their fibers will not be as tough as the mature ones. The flavor is also milder, somewhat more “diluted”. This makes young leeks versatile options for many dishes.
When picking a leek to put in your dish, make sure that the stem or shaft is white. The bottom should also be clean and slender. Depending on the dish, you can pick a leek that has a large stem diameter or a thinner one. However, make sure that the diameter of the stem is at least half an inch. The leaves should roll in a compact manner from the stem. You can pick leeks with dark-green leaves; although we now know that different cultivars can have different hues.
Here’s one tip to keep in mind. Always choose leeks with “flat” bottoms. This is an indication that the leek is still young. If you see the vegetable already forming a round base, it is often a sign that the leek is already mature. Such types of leeks are not great for salads.
How to Prepare Leeks
When it comes to preparing leeks, the very first thing to do is to clean it. Most newbie home cooks get intimidated by the long stalks and leaves of this vegetable. One has to understand that leeks grow in soil. As such, there is always the risk of having soil particles somewhere in the vegetable. Cleaning will help remove these contaminants. Rinsing the leek in running water can help remove visible soil particles or dirt. It is also wise to trim the roots if there are any.
- Preparing Leeks for Soups and Salads
When preparing leeks for salads and soups, start by cutting off the tops of the leaves and the roots of the vegetable. Get a sharp kitchen knife and insert the tip near the base of the leek. Orient the blade of the knife so that it will run the entire length of the vegetable. Cut the leek lengthwise or along its axis. You should have two halves of the leek.
Lay one of the leek halves on the cutting board with its insides on the surface of the cutting board. Cut it lengthwise again so you now have leek quarters. Determine the number of leeks that you want to use in your dish. Based on this estimate, cut the leek quarters crosswise and place them in a bowl. Fill the bowl with cold water. Try to agitate the leeks using your hands so you can dislodge any particle or dirt that may still be present.
Drain the water or scoop out the leeks using a slotted spoon. Place the vegetable in a clean bowl.
- Preparing Whole Leeks
Some recipes call for whole leeks to be used. In such cases, here is how you can prepare the vegetable.
First, look at the leek and see where it starts to open into leaves. Insert your knife tip about a quarter of an inch below this area. Cut the green part or the leaves of the leek lengthwise. Leave the stem or stalk as is. Spread open the individual leaves and rinse them in cold running water. This will help dislodge any dirt that may be present.
Cut off the tops of the leek. Most chefs leave about 2 to 3 inches of this part of the vegetable to give their dish a more flavorful profile. You can store the cut greens for your other dishes. With the tops cut, you can cut the root end. Always cut as close to the leek roots as possible. This will help hold the vegetable together when cooking it whole.
A Sample Recipe: Caramelized Leek Risotto
Almost everyone loves risotto. It is already a complete meal in itself. For this sample recipe, you will be using the largest leek variety you can find. The trick here is to use only the white part of the vegetable. It is a very simple recipe, but one that you can improve on by adding your favorite meat proteins. Since we are going to use chicken stock, you can put in poultry like chicken or turkey in the dish. If you want to go vegetarian, then substitute the chicken stock with vegetable stock.
- 1 large leek
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- ¾ cup of Arborio rice
- 3 to 4 cups of chicken stock
- ¾ cup of white wine
- ½ cup of Romano or Parmesan cheese, grated
- Salt and pepper
- 1 tablespoon of chives, freshly-minced
- Prepare the leek by trimming off the green part. Cut it in half, lengthwise. Cut the leek halves into 1/3-inch pieces. Clean well.
- Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed pan. Add the leeks and stir. Continue cooking the leeks until they caramelize or turn brown. Make sure to keep on stirring every 5 minutes to prevent the leeks from getting burned. This should take about 20 to 25 minutes.
- Season with pepper and salt. Add the rice and stir. Make sure to coat each rice grain with the caramelized leeks. Stir every 2 minutes.
- Add the white wine. Keep on stirring until the volume of the wine has been reduced to about 1/3.
- Add the chicken stock into the mixture. Add only one ladle at a time. Continue stirring as you add more chicken stock until the Arborio rice is tender.
- Once you are satisfied with the texture of the rice, you can turn off the heat. Add the cheese and chives. Mix well. Make sure to taste and adjust the seasoning.
Leeks taste a lot like onions, only subtler and milder. Some varieties can lend your dish a different kind of sweetness, still subtle nonetheless. Preparing this vegetable is also easy. Everything depends on the dish that you want to make. In general, however, it is the white part that you will want to use.