Folks who do a lot of cooking at home frequently run into recipes that use shallots instead of onions. Because they’re so expensive, shallots are sometimes seen as the rich man’s onion. But that’s an unfair comparison.
While shallots are in the onion family and resemble their cousins — though when you start to separate them, they look more like garlic cloves — shallots are distinctly different than onions.
If you’re one of those people who find onions sharp tasting and too strongly flavored, consider growing shallots for their milder, almost nutty flavor.
Most shallots have a different, almost sour tang than a pungent onion and most will cook up a little sweeter than onions. They’re perfect for creaming, combining with white wine or using sparingly in Asian stir fries.
The best way to assure an affordable supply of shallots is to grow them yourself. It’s not hard. Shallots are grown in a way similar to onions. This article will teach you not only what shallots are, but how you can use them and exactly how to grow them at home.
Botanical Name: Allium cepa var. aggregatum (formerly, Allium ascalonicum)
Common Name: Shallot, gray shallot, French shallot, Dutch shallot
Plant Type: Biennial, bulb
Hardiness Zones: 2 – 10 (USDA)
Sun Exposure: Full sun
Soil Type: Loamy, well-drained
Soil pH: 5.5 to 7.0 (neutral, acidic)
Maturity: 90 days
Height: 1 to 2 feet tall
Spacing: 6 to 8 inches
Bloom Time: Spring
What is a Shallot?
Shallots are not simply small onions but they do belong to the same family as onions although previously they were categorized as a different family called Allium ascalonium.
Similar to garlic, this ingredient forms underground clusters, with each bulb protected by a thin, copper-colored husk. Once the top of the vegetable has emerged above ground, it can be dug up, just like the other members of the onion family.
The ancient Greeks gave this perennial plant its modern name, shallot, after discovering it in the ancient port of Ashkalon, located in present-day Israel. Crusaders brought shallots from the Middle East to Europe in the 11th century.
After making their way to France from Central and Southeast Asia, shallots quickly became a staple ingredient in French cuisine. Because of this, even though shallots are used in cooking all over the world, they will always be most closely associated with traditional French cuisine.
What Do Shallots Taste Like?
Shallots taste similar to onions, although they are sweeter and less pungent than onions but they’re not as milk as a leek or as strong as a garlic.
When raw, the flavor is more akin to a red onion, being spicy, astringent, and slightly juicy. The sugars release after cooking, softening the bite.
It is important to pick shallots that feel heavy for their size and have dry, papery skins. Avoid those that have sprouts or soft spots.
They are a good source of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins A, B6, and C, potassium, folate, and manganese.
How to Peel Shallots
The stem end of the shallot should be cut off and thrown away, and the papery peel should be removed. Larger shallots can be peeled more easily if cut in half lengthwise first.
It is not unusual to discover some blackish mildew on the shallot after it has been peeled. When your first instinct is to toss something, consider taking away a layer and seeing if that helps.
When the shallot has been peeled, cut it into slices, chop it, or mince it according to the recipe. When cut, shallots don’t usually make your eyes water like onions do, and they can be used in many dishes where you want to add flavor without making the dish too strong.
How to Cook with Shallots
Shallots can be added to a lot of dishes to make them taste better, including pasta dishes, salad dressings, chicken or beef stocks, and even quiche.
The flesh has a slight sweetness and a mild bite, making shallots ideal for finely chopping and sautéing with butter, slicing into a stew, roasting with a herb-rubbed chicken, or deep frying for a crunchy garnish or side dish.
Slice raw shallots into your salad or make a quick salad dressing by whisking finely minced shallots with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice. They taste great with a vinaigrette made with sherry vinegar.
Shallot Plant Care
Grow your shallots in full sun, which means at least six hours of direct sunlight on most days, for the best results. Shallots can also grow in partial shade, though they may not be as resilient.
Plant shallots in organically rich soil that drains well. They like a pH range of about 5.5 to 7.0, which is acidic to neutral.
Shallots require consistent watering throughout the growing season, especially during periods of drought. Ensure that the soil remains lightly moist, but do not allow the bulbs to sit in soggy soil, as this can cause rot. They require approximately one inch of water per week.
Temperature and Humidity
Before they begin to grow, shallots require a cool dormant period of at least one month at temperatures ranging from 32 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The ideal soil temperature for shallot plants is between 35 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, shallots are not sensitive to humidity as long as they are watered often and kept in soil that drains well.
Shallots don’t usually need fertilizer. But adding compost to the soil in the spring can help to improve drainage and add nutrients.
Shallot bulbs can overwinter in the ground because they go dormant during the winter. They require no special care to overwinter as long as their planting site has adequate drainage.
The plant will start to wake up once the temperatures begin to warm up, which will kickstart the growing process.
How to Plant and Grow Shallots
Choose a sunny location in your garden to plant shallots. It’s also a good idea to keep shallots separate from other plants because they don’t like competing for soil moisture or nutrients.
Also, the place where you plant should have soil that drains well and doesn’t tend to flood. You can also grow shallots in pots.
Shallots are typically grown from cloves. Each clove should be planted with the thick end pointing downward and the top just above the soil line.
Plant them 6 to 8 inches apart in rows, leaving 12 to 18 inches between each row. These plants can grow without a support structure.
When to Plant Shallots
When to plant depends on whether you’ll be using seeds or shallot sets, which are young bulbs. If you plant shallot sets in late fall, you can start picking them in early summer. But planting this plant in the fall doesn’t always work in the colder parts of its growing zone.
You can also plant sets in early spring for fall harvest. Plant the shallot sets roughly two to four weeks before your region’s projected last frost date in the spring.
If growing shallots from seed, sow them outdoors four weeks before your last expected spring frost, or start them indoors eight to ten weeks before the average last frost date.
How to Plant Shallots
As most shallot types prefer the same conditions and require much the same growing season, it’s best to choose them according to your taste. Dutch yellow shallots have a bit more bite than the milder French red shallot, which are perfect raw in salads when chopped finely and used sparingly.
If you’re starting from seed, plant them indoors very early, say in January or even December. They don’t need especially warm temperatures to germinate and once they do will grow slowly.
Set them out when they have three or more “leaves.” With good timing you can have them in the garden a month or so before last frost.
Plant shallowly — the top of the bulb should be just under the soil — and with up 8 inches between them or a minimum of 6 inches.
Mulch well to protect from frost and to smother weeds. Shallots, like onions hate competition. That’s why they should be well-spaced when set in the garden.
If you’re planting from bulbs, be sure to separate the cloves. One bulb may have a separate clove at its center with several cloves growing around it. You might think they resemble garlic in this way. Each planted clove will grow several cloves around it.
Make sure the soil is loose and rich in compost. Shallots like a slightly acidic soil. They also like constantly moist conditions — again mulch will help — but don’t over water or the bulbs will rot. (We had this experience one particularly rainy summer on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.)
Zones in which onions overwinter will also allow fall planting of shallots. If you live in zone 5 or lower, wait until spring.
How to Grow Shallots in Pots
Shallots benefit from being grown in containers because they can be easily relocated so that the plant is always exposed to bright light. You can also carefully control how much water the plant gets.
A pot with a diameter of 6 inches is ideal for one clove. As you would when planting in the ground, space multiple cloves 6 inches apart. Make sure there are plenty of drainage holes in the container.
You should use an unglazed clay pot so that the excess soil moisture can evaporate through the walls.
When the soil is dry about an inch down, water the plant. Slowly pour water over the surface of the soil until it flows through the drainage holes, and then stop. Typically, shallots require 1 inch of water per week, or more when the weather gets really hot.
Fertilizer should be applied to shallots growing in containers in the early spring. You can get the best results by using a fertilizer with a 10-10-10 NPK ratio.
How and When to Harvest Shallots
Shallots take 90 to 120 days to mature, which means you can have a harvest by the Fourth of July if you set them out in March. They’re great chopped finely and added to barbecue sauce. During the growing period, you can clip the leaves to use as garnish much like you do with green onion tops.
Shallots are ready to harvest when, like onions, the tops turn and bend. If you’ve done well and the weather cooperated, you’ll have nice, fat bulbs.
Brush the soil from them and allow to air dry for a week or more in a dark place until the skins are crisp. Trip the tops and roots and store in a dry place and they’ll keep for months.
Use like onions, only very sparingly. Gentle cooking preserves their gentle flavor. Here’s a cream of shallot soup recipe that is rich, satisfying and uniquely flavored. Bon appetit!
Common Pests and Plant Disease for Shallots
Shallots can suffer from the same diseases as onions. Damping off and fungal “smut” infection can be avoided by starting plants from sets purchased from reliable sources rather than starting from seed.
Fusarium and “pink” root rot which can be avoided by carefully controlling moisture and making sure your soil is compost rich and full of the microbes that eliminate harmful fungal and bacterial conditions.
They can also be attacked by onion thrips. Look for yellowing leaves and small holes to detect their presence. You can smother them with a good, organically-approved insecticidal soap. Rotating onion crops year to year is a good idea, especially if there have been any previous incidence of diseases.
Get your gardens off to a great start and keep them productive with organic soil amendments. Need advice? Our Soils Blog provides the ideas, information and practical experience you need to get the job done right.
Eric Vinje founded Planet Natural with his father Wayne in 1991, originally running it as a grasshopper bait mail-order business out of a garage.
Eric is now retired, but is still a renowned gardener known for his expertise in composting, organic gardening and pest control, utilizing pesticide-free options, such as beneficial insects.
Eric believes when you do something good for the environment, the effects will benefit generations to come.