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.
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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. The hardest part might be finding organic starts. We seldom see organic shallot starts available at local nurseries, but their are plenty of mail order sources, usually not the major seed companies, but smaller outfits that specialize in organic seeds.
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 to a foot between plants (though five inches should do). 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.
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. They can suffer from the same diseases as onions: damping off and fungal “smut” infection which can be avoided by starting plants from sets purchased from reliable sources rather than starting from seed; and 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.
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… 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!