Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It: Shallots

I positively adore shallots. Admittedly, my love for them didn’t come about completely organically. My husband has a severe intolerance to onions, but shallots don’t bother him as intensely – so I’ve had to be creative in my cooking, omitting onions here, and substituting shallots there. (The only onion-centric recipe I truly miss making is Marcella Hazan’s famous Tomato Sauce with Onions and Butter  – shallots just don’t cut it.) And having gone to a French culinary school, I have minced more shallots than I care to think about, for umpteen French sauces, vinaigrettes, soups and braises. Although they can be pricy, they add a little je ne sais quoi (as the French would say) to so many dishes. 

A Brief History

Unfortunately, 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 (I know: still 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 were may have been introduced to England as early as the 13th century; but shallots weren’t mentioned in print in English until 1655.

Factual Nibbles

  • 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. (Indeed, The Oxford Companion to Food notes that the ancient Roman author Pliny wrongly insisted that the shallot originated there, resulting in centuries of linguistic confusion. Thanks a lot, Pliny.)
  • Here’s a super weird video that is a visual ode to shallots, titled, appropriately enough, “Shallots.”
  • 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 my exhaustive internet research) aside from the fact that “Shalott” and “shallot” are homophones and POETRY.

Cultivation

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. I said that 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).

Seasonality

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.

Environmental Impact

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 check out our Real Food rule of thumb, below.)

Characteristics

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, I find shallots to be so much 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 to me, they still are less biting than their onion cousins. Unfortunately, shallots can be quite a bit more expensive than onions. But here’s a tip: if you have access to a Southeast Asian market (e.g., Thai, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Lao, etc.) you should be able to find shallots for much, much cheaper.

What to look for

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. (Don’t fear – if your shallots have sprouted, just remove the green sprouts prior to cooking.)

Nutrition

Shallots are high in Vitamins C, A and B6, folate, potassium and manganese. They contain a little bit of calcium, iron and protein, too. 

What to Do with It

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.

Cooking

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! I said desserts!). Check out this recipe for sweet Thai custard topped with crispy shallots. (As an aside: I first heard of this dish from a Lao friend whose mom makes it. As with several dishes attributed to their arguably more famous neighbor, my Lao friends insist that this dish is, in fact, Lao and not Thai.) But crispy shallots aren’t just for Southeast Asian dishes! Every year for Christmas dinner, my uncle makes the Union Square Café’s mashed turnips with crispy shallots and it is easily my favorite thing on the heavily laden table (and would be perfect for Thanksgiving, too). Or sub crispy shallots for those canned fried onions in your Thanksgiving green bean casserole! Here’s a nice video tutorial on how to cook fried shallots from Mark Bittman if you want to have a go at it.

Storage

Stored properly in a cool, dark place, shallots can be kept for up to six months.

Pro Tips

Check out this video of a Mario Batali minion showing us how to properly (and quickly) mince a shallot. And Michael Ruhlman gives us these raw shallot tips:

  • Minimize the harshness of raw shallots by macerating 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).

Stretching your fresh food dollar though preservation

Shallots can be pickled with ease and there are tons of recipes out there, like balsamic pickled shallots or – perfect for Thanksgiving – turkey liver mousse with pickled shallots. Even Gwyneth Paltrow gets into the pickled shallot game. You can also lacto-ferment shallots. Chopped shallots can be frozen for long term storage; just note that they will lose their crunchy texture (OK if you’re cooking them anyway). 

Recipe

Caramelized Shallot Jam with Rosemary and Honey

Serve this refrigerator jam with hard, salty cheeses (I’m thinking a nice aged cheddar would be good, or Manchego) or tuck a dollop into a grilled cheese sandwich. It is also excellent on turkey sandwiches, perfect for all of that leftover turkey from Thanksgiving! Use larger shallots for this recipe – they’re far easier to peel. The jam will keep in the refrigerator for at least a week.

Ingredients:
1 12 lbs. shallots, peeled
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
2 tablespoons honey
1 small sprig rosemary

Method:
1. Slice off the root of the shallots and cut them pole to pole (vertically) into strips about 14 inch thick. (Cutting them horizontally into rings makes for a stringier jam.)
2. In a medium sauté pan set over medium-high heat, add the olive oil, shallots and a generous pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the shallots are soft – about 8-10 minutes.
3. Turn the heat down to medium low. Continue cooking, stirring every once in a while, for an additional 20-25 minutes. Using a wooden spoon, occasionally scrape the browning bits on the bottom of the pan to keep them from cooking too quickly (re-incorporate them into the shallot mixture). At the end of the cooking time, the shallots should have reduced dramatically in volume and should be evenly brown and soft.
4. Stir in two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar and the honey. Scrape remaining browned bits from the bottom of the pan and continue stirring to coat the shallots with the honey-vinegar mixture. Add the rosemary sprig. Let the mixture simmer on low for an additional 5-6 minutes, occasionally stirring gently, until thickened slightly.
5. Remove rosemary sprig. Stir in the remaining tablespoon of balsamic vinegar. Taste and add additional salt if necessary.

Makes 1 scant cup.

(*Real Food rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG’s guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them – agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry’s tendency toward large monocrops.)

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