What Are Shallots?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Unpeeled shallot

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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 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, paper-like husk. Shallots are harvested the same way as the other foods in the family by digging up once the top of the vegetable crowns the dirt.

This perennial plant got the name shallot from and 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—and that's why to this day, it's still very much associated with classical French cuisine, despite the fact that it's used in dishes all over the world.

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.

One classical application of the shallot involves dicing the vegetable and making a shallot 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 ause 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 half-a-cup is needed. Though in small amounts the two ingredients can be used interchangeably.

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RELATED: Onions: Six Different Types and How to Use Them

What Do Shallots Taste Like?

Shallots have an onion-like flavor, though there's more of a sweetness and a mellowness to them where onions are sharper and more pungent. 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 mellows that bite.

Shallots Recipes

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.

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 July and early August, and throughout the summer and into fall.

Storage

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.

Nutrition and Benefits

Based on weight a shallot has more antioxidants, minerals, and vitamins than its cousin food the onion contains. Shallots contain vitamins A, C and B6, folate, thiamin, iron, calcium, copper, potassium, and phosphorus. Once chopped the shallot releases allicin, which is said to contain a vasodilator chemical called nitric oxide that aids in lowering blood pressure.

Varieties

The three most popular types of shallots include the grey shallot, the Prisma shallot, and the Jersey or pink shallot.

  • The 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.
  • The Prisma has a deep pink skin that's more glossy than papery and, since they are easy to grow, the grocery stores tend to carry them.
  • The pink shallot tends to be larger and more round than the grey one and has 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.