7 Perfect Pearl Onion Substitutes: From Dishes To Drinks

Although it may seem impossible to find an alternative that can rival the sweet, mild, and delicate flavor of pearl onions, quite a few substitutions will work perfectly in both your cooking and cocktails. 

Don’t panic, and don’t waste time running to the grocery store. 

Check your cabinets, counter, and freezer, and you may just have one of these excellent pearl onion alternatives on hand.

Let’s discuss the 7 best pearl onion substitutions out there and when and how to use each one. 

A Pearl Onion Alternative For Every Situation

White Onion

white onion on a gray background

Diced white onion can substitute for pearl onions in many cooked dishes, especially if the pearl onion is to be sweated, sauteèd, caramelized, or roasted. 

Don’t use white onion in place of pearl onion in your cocktails. There are better, more suitable alternatives which we will discuss later on. 

The difference in flavor between the two is that white onions will have much more pungent heat than pearl onions’ tender and sweet flavor. 

Replace ¾ cup of pearl onions with ½ cup of diced white onion. This way, the intense heat will not overpower more delicately flavored dishes. 



Shallots are not as sweet as pearl onions, but they have a similar mild onion flavor.

They are an alternative you can use in cooking but not for cocktails. 

You may want to consider adding a sweet element to your dish, like sugar or date syrup, to round out the missing flavors that pearl onions would’ve brought to the plate.

Use about ¾ cup of shallots for every 1 cup of pearl onions in your recipe. This ratio will give you the best balance of flavor without overpowering the dish with tiny chunks of shallots. 


substitute for leeks

Even less sweet than shallots, but still an excellent substitute for pearl onions are leeks.

Perfect for a recipe that would call for caramelized pearl onions, the leeks will benefit from having their sugars caramelized. This will bring out the sweet and mild onion flavor reminiscent of pearl onions.

Slice the leeks into thin half-moon slivers and sautè them before adding them in place of pearl onions to soups, stews, braises, and gratins. 

Each medium-sized leek will equal about 1 cup of pearl onions.

Boiling Onions

Boiling onions on wood cutting board

Boiling onions are slightly larger than pearl onions and most commonly come in yellow or white varieties, but there are red varieties out there. 

Like pearl onions, boiling onions are harvested when they are young, tender, sweet, and mild.

They are the perfect substitution for soups, stews, and roasting. 

You can either peel them and use them whole or cut them in half so that they are relatively the same size as pearl onions and will cook the same way. 

Depending on the size of boiling onions you have, you might be able to halve the necessary amount of pearl onions. 

Cipollini Onions

a lot of cippolini onions

Cipollini onions are sweeter and flatter than pearl onions and are almost always found in mesh bags with the papery skin still intact.

The sugar content of these onions makes them a great candidate for caramelization. They are a delicious alternative for pearl onions whenever you would have sauteèd or roasted the onions.

Expect a very sweet yet mild onion flavor, which is what we are looking for when trying to find a substitute for pearl onions. 

Cocktail Onions

Martini with Cocktail Onion

Cocktail onions are often brined pearl onions with a bit of added turmeric and paprika. If your recipe calls for pickled pearl onions, these are essentially the same and can be swapped without issue.

Cocktail onions are a great pearl onion substitution in, you guessed it, cocktails. But don’t shy away from trying them in other recipes that call for pearl onions, like stews.

Don’t forget to balance the added vinegar flavor by eliminating or adding less of whatever acid components are in your recipe. 


Capers Caperberries in Bowl

You may have heard of capers before, but have you ever tried caperberries?

They are the pickled fruit of the caper tree and are an excellent substitute for pickled pearl onions in cocktails. 

By garnishing your cocktail with a caperberry, you will achieve a similar tart, tangy, and acidic flavor as if you had used a pickled pearl onion. 

They will not offer the same sweet bite of the pearl onions but will still make a tasty drink in a pinch. 

Tips For Working With Pearl Onion Substitutes

Consider the flavor that the pearl onions would bring to your dish or drink before choosing an alternative. 

Were the pearl onions pickled to enhance and create a tangy zing in your cocktail? Then you will want to opt for the substitutions stored in brine to bring a similar flavor to your drink.

Were the pearl onions intended to add a soft and mellow onion flavor to your stew? Choose boiling onions or cippolini onions to replicate the mild flavor and cooking time (for their similar size). 

Maybe the pearl onions were to bring sweetness to your dish. In this case, consider adding sugar, date syrup, or another sweet alternative to your recipe to balance that missing flavor component when substituting pearl onions. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What cocktail uses pearl onions?

The classic Gibson martini is made with gin and vermouth, is garnished with pearl onions in place of olives, and served in a martini glass.

Are pearl onions just small onions?

Pearl onions are a smaller variety of onions and can be harvested when young, tender, and mild. They are sweeter and have a less intense oniony flavor than the larger bulbs. 

Where can I find pearl onions?

You will often find peeled pearl onions in the freezer section of your grocery store. Depending on the season and where you live, you may be able to find fresh pearl onions in the produce section in a mesh bag with their papery skins still intact.

About the author

Jasmine graduated top of her class from culinary school and has continued cooking and baking ever since. Alongside her passion for food, she is a total bookworm, writer, and editor. You can find her bookish ramblings on her website and bookstagram.