Leeks are great workhorses: Don’t have garlic or onions handy? Swap in a leek and it’ll do right by you. There’s also something sophisticated about them. Their flavor is understated and elegant, and adding leeks can make any old dish feel fancy (consider leek soup versus onion soup and tell me I’m wrong. I’ll wait).
If you tend to overlook leeks, this guide will help you appreciate them to their fullest. Here’s everything you need to know about leeks, from choosing to storing to prepping to cooking.
What Are Leeks?
Leeks are native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East and have been a favorite ingredient for hundreds of centuries. They were likely first cultivated in ancient Egypt, but it was the ancient Romans who spread the love and introduced leeks to Europe and Britain.
Leeks are members of the allium family, but unlike their onion and garlic cousins, leeks don’t form bulbs or produce cloves. Instead, leeks give us long cylindrical pearly-white stalks and stiff blue-green leaves that fan out.
What Do Leeks Taste Like?
Leeks have a subtlety other alliums lack—they are grassy, mildly garlicky, and sweet. Plus, when you cut into leeks, they won’t make you cry.
Leeks give us more cooking options than most other alliums, too. They can add flavor to a dish and can be the main dish (hello, leeks vinaigrette). Cooked leeks have a lovely sturdy-yet-silky texture.
There are many different varieties of leeks—some are ready for harvest earlier or later in the season and there are variations in stalk width and how wide the leaves spread. However, there doesn’t tend to be a noticeable difference in flavor between types.
How to Shop For Leeks
Leek season is fall through spring. You can find them year-round in a grocery store but, as with all out-of-season produce, those are flown in from far away. Whenever you can, stick to local; they’ll be super fresh, taste better, and have a lower carbon footprint.
Good leeks should feel firm and look healthy from root to tip. The stems should be white—we eat the tender white parts, so the longer the better—with no dark or soft spots. The dark green parts should be very dark with no yellowing or brown spots. Avoid anything that’s limp, wilted, or starting to shrivel.
As a rule, I like to stick to skinnier stalks, up to 2 inches in diameter. As leeks get larger they get tougher, more woody, and little more pungent (but they’re still the mildest allium; even at their toughest they won’t make you cry).
How to Store Leeks
Store whole leeks in the crisper drawer of the fridge for up to a week. A lidded container or zip-top bag that’s not completely sealed is a good idea to keep their smell contained. Don’t wash or trim them until just before using.
How to Prepare Leeks
The dark leaves are too tough to eat but they’re great for stock. Keep them in the freezer if you want to use them later. Slice off the root end and then prep the leek per the recipe. When slicing or chopping, start at the white end and stop once the leaves become tough, usually when they’ve turned light to medium green.
Leeks can have a lot of sandy dirt between the layers (especially where the stalks separate and fan out), so be mindful and clean carefully to avoid gritty bites.
If you’re slicing them, wash them the way you’d wash lettuce. Slice, then place in a bowl of cold water and swish to clean. Spin in a salad spinner to remove excess water before using.
How to Freeze Leeks
Leeks can very easily be frozen. First, decide if blanching is something you want to do: Un-blanched leeks can be stored for up to two months before they lose their flavor, blanched leeks will keep for about a year.
Slice or chop the leeks. If you’re blanching, bring a pot of water to a boil, and add your leeks for just a minute. You can transfer them to a bowl of ice water or to a dry surface and let them cool on their own. Make sure they’re completely cool and dry before moving on.
Spread your leeks into a single layer on a parchment-lined baking sheet, and freeze for an hour. Transfer them to a freezer bag, remove as much air as possible, seal, and store in the freezer. Use directly from frozen or thaw in the fridge or on the counter. Frozen leeks are best used in soups or stews since they lose much of their structure upon thawing.