Let’s be clear: a shallot is not an onion. You could be forgiven for thinking they’re the same and substituting for onions in a recipe. Very few recipe writers will specify shallots for this reason, myself included at times. It’s much more convenient to just say “onion.”
Publishers will tell me, “No one will know the difference, so why complain?” But you should be concerned, because shallots have a completely different flavor profile. The shallots are yin to the yang of the onion.
I grew up thinking that shallots and onions were the same thing too. In Thai, shallots are called hohm. I should have realized something was up, since the literal translation is “fragrant.”
No one in their right mind would sniff a raw onion and call it fragrant. However, if you smell a shallot, I could understand. It’s still going to make your eyes water, but it’s not as spicy. Shallots are more delicate and aromatically scented, much sweeter to eat raw.
Randy Moon, one of the “Four Horsemen” behind my favorite New York wine bar (which also has an excellent menu) says that onions are a crucial base note for dishes that take a long time to cook. Some of the best dishes in the world have onions as a starting point. Meanwhile, shallots are the top note.
“Everyone in their place and a place for everything”, is what mise en place means, and that is the motto of all self-respecting cooks and chefs. There is a place for shallots and a place for onions.
Use raw shallots in a salad and they will sing harmoniously with your other vegetables; use onions when making a stew. Shallots when you need finesse, onions when you need weight.
Shallots belong to the allium family (Allium cepa, if we’re being pedantic) and look a lot like onions. But surprisingly, they are more closely related to garlic than to onions. Shallots grow like garlic, with clusters of offsets genetically identical to their parent bulb, while onions are a more solitary bulb and easier to grow from seed.
An onion. Unlike shallots, an onion grows as a single bulb. Photograph: Roman Tiraspolsky/Alamy
Shallots come in a few different forms. The most common in Australia are the French red eschallot. Long and tapering, they are delicately pretty. Even cuter are the small Asian shallots. They are clumpier and harder to peel, but the extra sweat is worth it. Its color ranges from yellow to pinkish gray to a striking deep crimson.
In the last decade they have become easier to find in Australia. The first time I met them, my eyes bulged. It was on a Vietnamese-owned farm in Darwin, where huge piles were being cured. I bought as many as I could fit in my suitcase to take back to my kitchen in Sydney, where I happily used them in place of whatever calls for an onion in Asian recipes.
Onions are not common in South and Southeast Asian culinary traditions. When chefs and cooks come to Australia, where onions are plentiful, they sigh with relief. Peeling a box of onions is a walk in the park compared to peeling a box of tiny shallots. That’s why in restaurants, including Asian ones, you won’t see a shallot, even though it is traditionally asked for. But don’t stop using them at home. The rewards are many.
When cooking, shallots excrete much less moisture than onions, making them a better choice for frying until crisp. You can buy them fried in Asian stores, but why not turn them into a meditative Sunday afternoon experience? The benefits of that session will be a hundred times greater.
Store-bought fried shallots are often stale and are fried with dubious sources of palm oil. By doing it yourself, you can use a much better quality oil. My current obsession is macadamia oil, which has an incredibly high heating point and great health benefits as well. Macadamia oil is rich in oleic acid and monounsaturated fatty acids, and is high in omega 3 and omega 6. When combined with shallot’s high levels of polyphenols and flavonoids (antioxidants), it’s practically a superfood flavor bomb.
Fried shallots are incredibly versatile. You can use them as a decorative garnish on anything you want to finish off a dish. Pasta, noodles, rice, soups, vegetables, meat… even dessert. Oh really.
That’s what Thais do. It’s not weird… not at all.
I used freshly fried shallot in the dessert dish for a dinner I made in New York, a royal cuisine dish called som chun: frozen fresh fruit, scented with an aromatic floral syrup, bergamot, fresh ginger, sliced macadamia nuts, and finished with crispy fried shallots.
Try it this summer. It teeters in the balance between the fresh sweetness of the seasonal fruit and the salty flavor of the shallots.
Just don’t try it with onions. It would not be the same.
Drained fried shallots on paper towels. Photography: Yuki Sugiura/The Guardian
500ml macadamia oil
gray salt for seasoning
Get in the zone, with nowhere else to be but to peel and finely chop the shallots. You don’t need to cut them in half before cutting, as once they’re fried, they’ll shrink.
On the highest element, heat the oil in a wok or skillet for about five minutes. Gently push the shallots into the oil and watch it bubble. Lower the heat to low-medium. Resist the urge to push it for about five minutes.
Then reach in with a wooden paddle or spatula and stir the shallots around the pan constantly. Stand by the stove, focus on your breath, and inhale the smell of allium delight. If you don’t want your whole house to smell like shallots, I highly recommend turning the hood to full and opening the windows.
Once the shallots start to brown, remove them from the heat and drain them in a steel mesh colander, lined with a few paper towels. Place a stainless steel container under the strainer to collect all the oil. Cool the shallots and then sprinkle them with a teaspoon of salt. Stored in an airtight container, you can keep them refrigerated for up to six months.
Keep the oil separately in another jar and use it for salad dressings or as a finishing oil for absolutely anything. These will become your favorite pantry staples. they are for me