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September, 2012

The Shallot Scoop

By Dennis Linden

Shallots, onions and garlic are all related but grow up very differently. Both garlic and shallots have at least two cloves per bulb.

Shallots

Are shallots just tiny onions? In the botanical sense of the word, the answer is yes; they are part of the onion family, the genus of Allium to be exact. However, both the growers of shallots and discerning cooks who use them regularly would agree that shallots are an altogether very different ingredient. In fact, there is a group of traditional growers and letter-of-the-law foodies who call into question the pedigree of what they consider a “false shallot” that is also in the marketplace these days.

Shallots, onions and garlic are all related but grow up very differently. Both garlic and shallots have at least two cloves per bulb. In the field, each garlic clove is replanted to produce one new garlic plant that bears a single bulb. Conversely, the whole shallot bulb is planted and produces a cluster of new bulbs at the base of each plant. Onions are always grown from seed with a yield of one symmetrical bulb per plant, no cloves.

While the flavor of a shallot does have characteristics of both its cousins, it would be too simplistic to describe its taste as a combination of onion and garlic. The shallot has an unmistakable aroma and pleasing pungency that is unique. Still thinking small onion? Just sauté an onion and shallot side by side in butter to experience the distinction of aroma that translates very differently on the palate. Still, keep that simplistic taste description in mind when a recipe suggests an onion as an acceptable shallot substitute. In a pinch, use an onion with a dash of garlic for a closer flavor profile and claim the golden rule of horseshoes – closest counts! My own palate also detects a slight apple-ish nuance in there somewhere, but I can’t prove it!

The shallot has been associated with French cooking for centuries. It is an icon of that cuisine’s focus on subtle nuance, especially in sauces and soups, lending a distinctive flavor that can be detected without overpowering the other ingredients in a recipe. What something tastes like is such a nebulous thing to capture in words. Suffice it to say that the shallot adds something special -- a refined finish -- which the common onion does not offer.

In researching this article, I found many sources pointing to a town in Palestine called Ascalon as the native land of shallots. A convenient assumption that, I believe, has become fact by repetition over the centuries. It is true that the Crusaders of the 12th Century did find and bring the shallot back from the Middle East to Europe and are the ones who christened its birthplace as the town where they had found it. However, this ignores the fact that shallots appear in Vietnamese and Thai recipes many centuries prior to the travels of those history-rewriting Crusaders. So I am thinking the shallot probably originated somewhere in the Far East; maybe even brought back home by a crusading Ascalonian! Be that as it may, the French have since adopted the veggie as their own; today the French shallot crop is second only to grapes in fresh productions.

Earlier I mentioned that to propagate shallots one must plant the whole bulb. This is actually at the crux of a “false” shallot controversy. Over the last few decades, the Netherlands has developed a very successful plant genetics and seed industry. In 2003, those pollinating Dutch came up with a process to grow shallots from seed. Planting a shallot crop from seed is much less costly than bulb planting because it can be done by machine. As one would expect, seed shallots are priced cheaper in the marketplace than those produced from a bulb. However, the provenance of this seeded product also disqualifies it from being considered a real shallot in the minds, hearts and palates of most shallot aficionados.

While the average consumer could probably not detect a difference in taste, a true shallot-head cringes at the thought of a seeded shallot; claiming the comparison is akin to chocolate vs. vanilla. However, the physical distinction between the two is fairly obvious if you know what you are looking for. 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.

Shallots can come in a few different colors and shapes. The elongated French grey shallot is considered to be the only true shallot (mostly by the French!). The U.S. marketplace is dominated by a reddish-copper skin variety, grown domestically. Actually, French-grown shallots were barred from import into this country more than a decade ago in retaliation for France's refusal to allow the export of hormone-treated American beef. There are also red or yellow shallot varieties, more usually found at farmers markets. No matter the color or shape, the same subtle onion-garlic-shallot-(and apple) tones come through.

Shallots can be minced much more finely than onions, which contributes to more delicately structured sauces. For an easier fine dice, cut the shallot in half lengthwise. Keep the root end intact and just peel back the skins. Then hold the root end while you mince the shallot first with lengthwise cuts, stopping just short of the root end, then with cross-wise cuts. Braised, shallots do wonders to a savory roast! I like to add minced raw shallots to vinaigrette for that extra something in salad. Sauté sliced shallots in olive oil with splash of wine and a dash beef broth, reduce and serve over your favorite steak or chop -- the look is like miniature onion rings, but there is nothing small about the taste of this often overlooked culinary treasure. Happy forks!