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Shallots Are Onions' Cute Little Cousins

shallots
Shallots look a lot like little onions, but have a slightly garlicky flavor profile that sets them apart and makes them perfect for sauces and stews. Boston Globe/Getty Images

If you like to cook, what's one of the most frequently used vegetables in your kitchen? Let me guess: You probably answered 'onions,' right?

And you'd be in good company: In terms of food availability, onions ranked third in a 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) survey, behind potatoes and tomatoes.

But there's a closely related family member that's slowly been gaining steam and edging out the ubiquitous onion in the world of home cooking: shallots.

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The History of Shallots

The allium family contains some of the most important players in the world of food: garlic, chives, onions, leeks, scallions and, yes, shallots.

We can trace the origin of the shallot back thousands of years, likely to Central Asia or Southeast Asia. From there, travelers took shallots to India, the Mediterranean and beyond. Ancient Egyptians feasted on shallots and used them as a medicinal plant.

Crusaders coming back from Palestine took the vegetable to Europe, where it became a staple in many countries, especially France. Shallots also feature prominently in many kitchens throughout Southeast Asia, from Vietnam to Indonesia to Thailand.

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Farmers harvest shallots at the foot of Mount Batur, Kintamani in Bali, Indonesia.
Anton Raharjo/NurPhoto/Getty Images

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Onions vs. Shallots

Although they were previously considered a separate species in the family of Allium ascalonicum, shallots are, technically, a form of onion (Allium cepa). But a couple of very important factors distinguish shallots from onions. First: taste.

"Shallots are an onion with a garlicky flavor, and that's what separates them from regular onions," writes Cary Rosenthal in an email. Rosenthal is president of Gourmet Specialty Imports, which provides specialty onions to the restaurant industry and local groceries.

Shallots carry a reputation for being somewhat milder and sweeter in flavor than yellow onions. "Most types of onions have a stronger flavor than do shallots. Some recipes call for shallots so that the dish is not overpowered by a strong onion aroma and flavor," says Mary Ellen Camire, Ph.D., in an email. Camire is a member expert of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).

Shallots also differ from onions in color, size and shape. "Shallot bulbs are not as round as those of onions," says Camire. Most shallots are quite a bit smaller than onions, averaging less than 2 inches (5 centimeters) in length. Also, when you peel an onion, you'll find a single large bulb underneath the skin, but peeling most true shallots will reveal a clump of three to six cloves, similar to a bulb of garlic.

But do shallots also make you tear up less than regular onions when chopping? Some people claim that shallots possess fewer enzymes that contribute to crying, but there's not always a noticeable difference.

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Types of Shallots

There are three types of shallots, each with their own flavor profile and appearance.

The first is the banana or Echalion shallot, which serves as a cross between an onion and a shallot, offering the best of both worlds. It comes with a paper thin, often brown skin. If you need to substitute shallots for onions, this variety is your best bet.

The second is perhaps the most familiar to American consumers, and that is the "Jersey" shallot, which appears pink or reddish in color. Its deep hues can brighten up any salad or stew.

The last is the French gray shallot. It's acquired a reputation among all the shallots for its superior taste, which makes it coveted among French chefs. It's also known as the only " true shallot," as it's grown from bulbs planted from the previous season, as opposed to seeds.

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Cooking With Shallots

Due to their milder taste and crunchy flavor, shallots work well in many recipes, whether they're chopped raw or fried as a crunchy addition to a salad, or cooked down in curries and stews. You can also pickle them in balsamic vinegar or red wine vinegar for a treat down the line.

Camire recommends avoiding frying them in deep fat. "I think that deep-fat frying would ruin shallots' flavor. The mild taste would work well in salad dressings compared to onions," says Camire.

Chopping or mincing shallots is fairly similar to cutting onions, but if you need any tips on how to peel and cut your shallots, check out this video to see how professional chefs prepare their shallots for cooking:

Minced shallots work particularly well in sauces (especially classic French sauces like a béarnaise) and dressings. Crispy shallots also star in a number of Southeast Asian dishes, though red shallots are more common in this part of the world. Try an Indonesian-style nasi goreng (fried rice) with shallots. You can also try preparing them in the style of Vietnamese crispy fried shallots.

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Substituting Onions for Shallots (and Vice Versa)

Shallots can be substituted for onions fairly easily. Just follow one basic principle: Use three shallots for every onion in a recipe. If the recipe requires a large onion, you'll want to use your discretion to judge how many more shallots to add.

But what's more likely to happen: You have plenty of onions in the pantry, but not shallots. Substituting onions for shallots doesn't work as well, but if you're cooking with a small amount of onions, then you can probably get away with using a 1:1 ratio.

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Nutritional and Health Benefits of Shallots

Like other members of the allium family, shallots provide a number of essential nutrients, in relatively small doses, of course.

Are you looking for something besides bananas to boost your potassium levels? According to the USDA's FoodData Central, every tablespoon (10 grams) of chopped shallots provides 33 grams of potassium.

Shallots also offer moderate amounts of vitamin, A, vitamin C, magnesium and folate (vitamin B-9), according to Yasi Ansari, a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, in an email interview. Folate helps form red and white blood cells in bone marrow and, according to FoodData Central, shallots are also a decent source of manganese, which aids in blood clotting and bone formation.

shallots
Shallots grow as bulbs under the ground just as do onions and garlic.
Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Due to their low calorie count (every 100 grams of shallots provides 72 calories), shallots may also be a tasty addition to a healthy diet. Shallots contain other medicinal properties that can benefit a healthy lifestyle. "As a member of the allium family, they are packed with phytochemicals — naturally occurring antioxidants," says Ansari. He adds that "Antioxidants found in shallots can help to decrease inflammation, protect cells from free radical damage and help decrease chronic disease risk." (Free radicals are unstable atoms that can cause serious harm to your cells and affect aging.)

Researchers are still studying the general health benefits we get from eating shallots, but the results are promising.

"Shallots may have antiviral properties, support the immune system and circulation, while enhancing cognitive function and much more," says Ansari.

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