Shallots look like a small onion, and for a good reason. This slightly sweet ingredient is part of the Amaryllidaceae family, which counts leeks, garlic and onion as members. While the shallot has a bit of a bite, it's smoother and less pungent than the onion, but not as mild as a leek or as strong as garlic. Often, the shallot starts its life in a recipe finely chopped and sautéed with butter or olive oil, as a way to build flavor in dishes without making the kind of bold statement that an onion or garlic would.
What Are Shallots?
Shallots are not merely small onions; they're totally separate relative of onions known as Allium ascalonium. This ingredient grows in clusters underground like garlic, with each bulb sheathed by a thin, copper-colored husk. Shallots are harvested the same way as the other foods in the family by them digging up once the top of the vegetable crowns the dirt.
This perennial plant got the name shallot from ancient Greeks who came across the food while trading in the ancient port of Ashkalon, now in Israel. In the 11th century, crusaders brought shallots to Europe from the Middle East. Shallots may have traveled from Central and Southeast Asia, but once they arrived in France, they became a big part of French cooking. That's why to this day, shallots are still very much associated with classical French cuisine, despite the fact that they are cooked with all over the world.
They don't require any special preparation; you would treat them like an onion or garlic. Cut off the ends of the shallot and peel the papery skin off to reveal its have white and purple-tinged skin. Separate the bulbs and prepare as the recipe directs—usually chopping and cooking to soften and caramelize.
How to Cook With Shallots
Shallots can be added to a lot of foods to help refine them. There's a slight sweetness to the flesh and a mild bite that make shallots ideal for chopping finely and sauteing with butter, slicing into a stew, roasting with an herbed chicken, or deep frying for a crunchy garnish or side dish. Slice up raw shallots into a salad or whisk a finely minced shallot with extra virgin olive oil and lemon for a simple salad dressing. They're especially good with sherry vinegar for a vinaigrette.
One classical application of the shallot involves dicing the vegetable and making shallot-infused vinegar to serve with raw oysters. The ingredient is also a key component in beurre blanc, Bordelaise, and Périgueux sauces. This ingredient also goes well with eggs and meat; shallots find an easy home in quiches, soups, savory pies, and on top of a steak.
Unlike onions, shallots don't typically cause eyes to tear up when cut, and they can be used in many dishes where you want to add a layer of flavor that's not too pungent. This is one reason substituting onion for shallot should be taken lightly, and it's best not to if more than 1/2 cup is needed. In small amounts, the two ingredients can be used interchangeably.
What Do Shallots Taste Like?
Shallots have an onion-like flavor, though they're sweeter and more mellow than the sharper onion. Raw, the taste leans more toward a red onion, spicy and astringent with a bit of juiciness to it. Once cooked, the sugars come out and it softens that bite.
Shallots are rarely the star of meal. They are background players that round out flavors. You can use them anywhere you'd like a more mellow, less pronounced onion flavor, so they work well in sauces, soups, and, when pickled or fried, an ingredient worth savoring on their own. You can also use them in a compound butter to then use on other dishes such as cast-iron steak, for extra flavor.
Since they're milder than onions or garlic, shallots are often used raw, particularly in salad dressings, such as this sherry shallot vinaigrette or these green beans marinated in shallot dressing.
Shallots are also delicious with milder vegetables that benefit from the flavor kick of an allium but might be overwhelmed by garlic, like sautéed fiddleheads. Shallots are also great with mushrooms, fava beans, Swiss chard, and peas.
When slowly cooked or roasted, shallots become meltingly sweet. Toss them with oil, sprinkle them with salt, and cook the shallots in a hot oven until they are soft. Or, simply toss them in the pan when roasting a chicken, as in this roasted chicken with shallots.
Where to Buy Shallots
Most grocery stores stock shallots, usually near garlic and onions. Sometimes you'll see them packaged in pairs or threes if a supermarket doesn't carry them loose, by weight. Shallots are also found in farmers' markets starting in late summer and throughout the winter, usually, depending on where you live.
How to Choose Shallots
As with onions, choose shallots that feel heavy for their size and are firm. Avoid shallots with soft spots or that are sprouting (sprouting shallots have a green sprout growing from their stem end, while perfectly edible, they have a stronger, more bitter flavor than other shallots).
Keep shallots in a cool, dry, and dark place in a netted bag or basket. The biggest thing to look out for is moisture, which can cause the bulbs to mold. If properly stored, shallots can potentially keep for months, especially if you are buying them very fresh, right after harvest.
How to Peel Shallots
Cut off and discard the stem end of the shallot and remove the papery peel (larger shallots will be easier to peel if you cut them in half lengthwise first). It's not uncommon to find some blackish mildew on the peeled shallot. Instinct might have you toss the whole thing, but removing another layer will often solve the problem.
Once the shallot is peeled, slice, chop or mince as needed for the recipe.
The three most popular types of shallots include the grey shallot, the Prisma shallot, and the Jersey or pink shallot.
- Gray shallots have elongated bulbs and gray skin with a purplish flesh. This variety, which is also called griselle, has a stronger taste than the pink types and is highly prized by chefs.
- Prisma shallots have a deep pink skin that's more glossy than papery and, since they are easy to grow, the grocery stores tend to carry them.
- Pink shallots tend to be larger and more round than the grey ones and have a milder flavor.
The market may also offer Pikant shallots, a French hybrid that's bright magenta; the copper-colored Saffron shallot; teardrop-shaped Ambition shallots that have a red-copper color and creamy-hued flesh; pure white Olympus shallots; and the thick-skinned and straw-colored Bonilla shallot.