What Are Leeks?

Read on for all the info you need to know about leeks including the very best recipe for potato leek soup.

August 31, 2021
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561461953

Collection of leeks with roots and leaves attached, arranged on a white marble surface.

Photo by: Allison Achauer/Getty Images

Allison Achauer/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

If potato leek soup is the only thing about leeks that is familiar to you, read on. In addition to more info about what leeks are and how to use them, we’ve got a little history, some dictionary/pronunciation info and some great recipes, with tips on how to take them to the next level.

What Are Leeks?

Leeks are the tall, straight, elegant members of the Allium family of plants. They have a fresh and mild onion flavor and, when cooked, they become sweet and tender. You can enjoy leeks for months; prime season runs from early June through November. Typically, their white root ends are sliced up and pureed into soup, roasted or sautéed, while their tougher dark green ends can be added whole to soups or stocks for extra aromatic flavor.

Shopping and Storing Tip: Choose leeks that are straight and firm with bright green leaves. Store in the fridge, unwashed and wrapped in plastic for up to 2 weeks.

What Do Leeks Taste Like?

Leeks taste like a mild, sweet onion, but with their own distinctive twist. It’s hard to describe a specific flavor beyond onion-like, but once you’ve had leeks, you’ll recognize the differences between them. Let’s put it this way: shallots and onions taste much more alike other than leeks and onions do. It’s that sweet-not-exactly-onion flavor that chefs love and use discriminately so leeks don’t become ho-hum.

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857808874

Fresh green onions on a wooden cutting board with a napkin and a knife on a white table.

Photo by: Natalia Ganelin/Getty Images

Natalia Ganelin/Getty Images

Are Leeks and Green Onions (Scallions) the Same?

Leeks look like larger versions of scallions: they have the same shape and ombre effect of pale green root ends intensifying into dark green tops, but they are not green onions. They are indeed related to one another, but should not be used interchangeably. The entire stalk of the green onion is typically sliced and eaten raw because of its delicate texture and flavor. Leeks, on the other hand, are tougher than green onions and aren't typically eaten raw. Both green onions and leeks soften when they are cook, however leeks take a little longer to get there.

Are Ramps Wild Leeks?

No, ramps are a wild onion that are much more pungent than leeks. Perhaps the confusion stems from the fact that ramps are often labeled as wild leeks. You can decide if you want to correct everyone at the farmers market.

Can You Use Leeks Instead Of Onions?

In a pinch, you can definitely use leeks instead of bulb onions or green onions when cooking, but keep in mind that leeks are more expensive than regular white, yellow or red onions.

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1130121876

Close up of unrecognizable chef washing and rinsing the mud off an organic leek under cold running water.

Photo by: Yackers1/Getty Images

Yackers1/Getty Images

How To Clean Leeks

How you clean the leeks depends on how you're cutting them.

For leeks cut in half lengthwise, trim the root end of the leeks, leaving enough to hold the leaves together, and halve them lengthwise. Rinse the leek halves very well under running water to flush out any grit trapped between the leaves.

If you're going to slice or dice your leeks, you can cut them first and then rinse the cut pieces. Cut up your leeks, fill a salad spinner with water, add the leek pieces and swish them around. Lift the basket out, pour out the water, put the basket back in and spin. If you don’t have a salad spinner, a bowl and slotted spoon or small strainer will do.

For a step-by-step guide on how to cut leeks, head over to our story How to Clean Leeks: A Step-by-Step Guide.

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682353076

Hands of person slicing leeks on white cutting board, healthy eating concept

Photo by: Yulia-Images/Getty Images

Yulia-Images/Getty Images

How To Cut Leeks

After you slice off the root end, cut off the dark green tops and reserve them for stock (you can stash them in an airtight bag in the freezer until you make some).

The rest of the leek can be cut a number of ways.

  • Rounds: Cut straight across the body of the leek into even discs. Then you can sauté them just like that.
  • Dice like an onion: Cut the length crosswise into 4-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise to create a flat surface. Cut lengthwise strips, then cut across to get your square dice. Compared to the dice you get from an onion, it’s more of a 2-D dice.
  • Half moons: Cut the length crosswise into 4-inch pieces. Cut each piece in half lengthwise to create a flat surface. Cut crosswise to get half-moons.
  • Whole leeks: There are some cases where you don’t cut them at all: see the recipe below for Leeks with Dijon Vinaigrette. Simply cut down the length of the whole leek.
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1241376351

Wooden spoon stirring chopped leeks being fried in a stainless steel saucepan

Photo by: Peter Carruthers/Getty Images

Peter Carruthers/Getty Images

How To Cook Leeks

You can cook leeks just like an onion. Sauté them in a pot as the aromatic in a soup or a stew. Steam them all the way and serve them hot or cold as a side. Steam for a minute or two less, brush with oil and grill them: the partial cooking will allow them to get the great flavor of the grill without having to cook completely on the grill, where the outer papery layers might burn. Poach them whole in a large pot of salted water or broth for 7 to 10 minutes at a high simmer, just below boiling. The entire leek can be used for cooking, but not all of it is edible. When you cut the dark green tops off the leeks, you can use them instead of onions in stock. Just be sure to wash them really well under cold running water, as most of the grit will be in the top green leaves.

Can You Freeze Leeks?

You can freeze leeks two different ways: cooked and raw. If you’re saving a stash of leek tops to use for stock in a few weeks, you can freeze them after they have been thoroughly washed. If you want to freeze the white part, you need to cut it and sauté it before freezing.

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900038546

Vichyssoise - traditional French soup made of leek, potato and onion

Photo by: NoirChocolate/Getty Images

NoirChocolate/Getty Images

What Is Potato Leek Soup?

Potato leek soup can be as simple as leeks, potatoes and a clove or two of garlic cooked in seasoned broth until the potatoes are tender, and then pureed with an immersion blender or in a counter blender. Add some cream, salt and pepper to taste and you’re done. Or, you can develop the flavor of the leeks further by sauteing them with herbs and carrot and maybe some celery, adding cold stock and the potatoes and going from there. After it’s pureed, you can serve it hot or cold. Read on for more info.

What’s The Difference Between Potato Leek Soup And Vichyssoise?

The answer to this question is one word: temperature. Vichyssoise is always served cold while potato leek soup can be either hot or cold. So all Vichyssoise is potato leek soup, but not all potato leek soup is Vichyssoise. Hope that didn’t trigger a traumatic memory of high school math.

Where Did Vichyssoise Come From?

There are two stories, and who knows which one is true. One is that in the royal French court of Louis XV so many people were required to taste the soup to be sure no one was poisoning the king it was cold by the time it got to the table. And they liked it that way. And that’s a funny story, but in all probability it was created in 1917 in New York City by a different Louis. Louis Diat, the chef at the Ritz-Carlton. Chef Diat was born and trained in France, near the spa town of Vichy, where Vichy Water comes from. He created it based on memories of his grandma’s Potage Bonne Femme recipe.

How To Pronounce Vichyssoise

The last letter of Vichyssoise is an E, and that means the S is pronounced, and it has the sound of a Z. So it’s vi-shee-swaaz.

Leek Recipes 

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131203_FMN_Rigatoni_037.tif

Photo by: Justin Walker

Justin Walker

Solid 5-star reviews - the people have spoken. Trust them. Make this pasta.

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STEAMED_LEEKS_6.tif

Food stylist: Jamie Kimm Prop stylist: Marina Malchin,Food stylist: Jamie KimmProp stylist: Marina Malchin

Photo by: Antonis Achilleos

Antonis Achilleos

Steaming the leeks makes them tender and juicy. Try chilling them and serving cold with vinaigrette.

FNK_PancettaAndLeekRisottoForTwo_H

FNK_PancettaAndLeekRisottoForTwo_H

Food Network Kitchen’s Pancetta and Leek Risotto for Two, as seen on Food Network.

Photo by: Renee Comet

Renee Comet

Risotto with leeks on their own is a delicious dish, so imagine how amazing it is when you add pancetta.

In French, this soup is called potage bon femme, which literally translates to Good Wife Soup. Trust us, you don’t need to be a wife to make and enjoy this classic.

The Chef-iest recipe in this list, because chefs love using leeks in surprising ways. This recipe makes them the star: they're displayed as whole, long elegant stalks.

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POTATO_LEEK_SOUP_010.tif

Food stylist: Jamie Kimm Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin ,Food stylist: Jamie Kimm Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin

Photo by: Antonis Achilleos

Antonis Achilleos

Everything’s better with bacon. That is all.

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