Real Food Encyclopedia | Shallots
The true origins of shallots are veiled in mystery. It seems agreed upon that they have no wild counterpart and that they originated somewhere in Central Asia (yes, that’s pretty vague). From there they probably spread to the Indian subcontinent first, then to Europe. In “The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink,” John Mariani notes that it is likely that the ancient Romans cooked with them. They may have been introduced to England as early as the 13th century; but shallots weren’t mentioned in print in English until 1655.
Fun Facts about Shallots:
- According to Harold McGee, the words “shallot” and “scallion” both come from Ascalonia, the Latin name for Ashqelon, a city in classical Palestine with a very long and interesting history, totally unrelated to the shallot.
- These are the first few lines of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “Lady of Shalott:” ‘On either side the river lie/Long fields of barley and of rye/That clothe the world and meet the sky/And thro’ the field the road runs by/To many-tower’d Camelot.’ Which admittedly has nothing to do with shallots (at least based on our exhaustive research) aside from the fact that “Shalott” and “shallot” are homophones and POETRY.
What to Look for When Buying Shallots
Shallots come in a wide variety of shapes and colors. Most commonly, you’ll find them with coppery skin and a pink-ish interior, with teardrop-shaped cloves that can range from two to four or five inches in length. The French gray shallot, renowned in France for its flavor, has a grayish exterior (naturally). Banana shallots, also known as cuisse de poulet (“chicken thigh” in French), are more torpedo-shaped with various skin colors (some golden and some reddish).
Shallots used in Southeast Asian cuisine tend to be small with a red exterior.
So what’s the difference in flavor between shallots and onions? In cooked dishes, shallots tend to be more delicate and nuanced in flavor than onions, and a little bit sweeter. Chopped fine, they tend to dissolve more easily than onions. Raw shallots can be very pungent, but they still are less biting than their onion cousins.
When shopping, look for shallots that are firm and heavy for their size, without mushy or black spots. Pass on shallots that have started to sprout — they tend to go bad much more quickly and the green sprout can lend a bitter flavor to your food. (If your shallots have sprouted, just remove the green sprouts prior to cooking.)
Sustainability of Shallots
Shallots are still considered a specialty crop in the US, so their environmental impact seems to be minimal. However, commercially available shallots are sometimes imported from Europe and Mexico, so check origin labels (if they’re available) and buy your shallots from local farmers if you’re concerned about food miles and want to support local.
Botanically speaking, shallots (Allium cepa var. ascalonicum) are simply a variety of onion (Allium cepa). (They used to be considered a separate species — A.ascalonicum but no longer.) The famous Allium genus includes lots of other pungent veggies, and some Real Food favorites, including ramps, garlic (and their scapes, of course), scallions, leeks and bunching onions.
Shallots, unlike onions, tend to grow in clusters of large cloves. As this article explains, shallots are frequently cultivated by planting bulbs from the previous season’s harvest. Like with other bulbs, mid- to late fall, or after the first freeze, is ideal for planting; the freezing temperatures of winter make for more delicious, and larger, shallots. However, if you live in super cold area, shallots can be planted in the spring for fall harvest.
But shallot cultivation is not without controversy. Shallots are “frequently” cultivated by planting bulbs from the previous season’s harvest. There are some varieties of shallot, ironically developed by those bulb-growing savants the Dutch, which can be planted by seed (a much cheaper way to grow shallots, because the planting can be fully mechanized). The controversy here is this: shallot aficionados, led by the French, believe that “true” shallots are those varieties that are only propagated by planting bulbs from the previous season. So-called “false” shallots are those Dutch types that are grown from seed. How do you know if you’re getting a “true” or “false” shallot? As this article explains, “true” (bulb-planted) shallots can be differentiated from “false” (seed-planted) shallots thusly:
“Firstly, a bulb-planted shallot will always have a faint circular scar at the root end where it was separated from the parent cluster. Also, when cut in half, a true shallot will always have two cloves or sets of concentric layered scales; a seed-grown shallot has a singular bulb, no secondary clove, and looks very much like a tiny onion globe.”
The reality is that most people can’t really differentiate between “true” and “false” shallots, taste wise (although I’m sure that there are many French folks who would disagree).
While shallots are frequently harvested in mid- to late summer and into the fall, they need a period of curing (basically, drying out so they can be stored) which can last from a week to six weeks. They can then be stored for many, many months over the winter.
Stored properly in a cool, dark place, shallots can be kept for up to six months.
Cooking with Shallots
- Minimize the harshness of raw shallots by macerating (soaking) in vinegar.
- Incorporate raw shallots into your dish the day you are serving it (i.e., don’t store dishes with raw shallots in the refrigerator for a long period of time — they become more pungent over time).
Shallots are delicious on their own roasted, sautéed, fried and braised, but where they really shine is as integral components of sauces, vinaigrettes and other dishes that can benefit from shallots’ allium punch.
Shallots pair beautifully with meat (especially lamb, beef and poultry), game and with fish. They also make fantastic accents to other veggies and in salads. There are a few cuisines that are very closely associated with shallots, like classical French and Southeast Asian (think Thai, Lao, Malaysian and Indonesian cuisines, among several others in Southeast Asia). In French cooking, shallots make up vital flavor components to many classic sauces, including béarnaise, bourdelaise, sauce poivre vert (aka, green peppercorn sauce), sauce chasseur (aka, mushroom sauce) and so many others. Shallots are fantastic in vinaigrettes, too.
In Southeast Asian cuisines, shallots are used in many dishes. They are ground as part of complex curries and chile pastes and deep-fried as crunchy toppings for everything from salads to desserts (yes desserts!). Check out this recipe for sweet Thai custard topped with crispy shallots.
But crispy shallots aren’t just for Southeast Asian dishes. Try subbing crispy shallots for those canned fried onions in your Thanksgiving green bean casserole or toss them into a salad for a nice crunchy.
Shallots can be pickled with ease, using a variety of different vinegars. You can also lacto-ferment shallots. Chopped shallots can be frozen for long term storage; just note that they will lose their crunchy texture (which is okay if you’re cooking them anyway).
Shallots are high in Vitamins C, A and B-6, folate, potassium and manganese. They contain a little bit of calcium, iron and protein, too.