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  • Jere Folgert

Shallots ! How Similar Are They to Onions & Garlic?

Updated: Jan 19

Allium cepa ascalonicum, or shallot, is a bulb found that tastes like a milder version of an onion with a hint of garlic. Shallots are a trendy vegetable lately and many recipes call for them. Knowing about their taste and texture, as well as the perfect way to use them in food recipes, can be a big help when you are cooking. Some folks believe shallots are a type of onion; however, they are their own species. Shallots are mild flavored and taste like a combination between onion and garlic. Shallots often are described as a cross between onions and garlic. That's an accurate figurative description. Shallots were not created genetically in a lab by crossing the DNA of onions with garlic. Shallots are also not oddly shaped onions.


But what is the difference between Garlic, Onions and Shallots? The short answer is that garlic, onions and shallots are all unique vegetables. And each come in a wide variety of flavors, shapes and sizes. Shallots, like onions and garlic, are a member of the allium family, but their flavor is sweeter, richer, and sometimes more potent. Shallots, like garlic, grow in clusters, with several bulbs attached at the base. Shallots have coppery skins and magenta skins. Their off-white flesh, is usually tinged with hues of magenta. French, Indonesian and southern Indian cooking uses the shallot instead of onion, but keep in mind there is no good replacement for garlic.


Shallots on the Left. Garlic on the Right.

If you are ready to cook a recipe only to notice that the ingredient "shallots" are on the list? Could you just substitute another type of garlic or onion? What a great question. Don't worry. The shallots vs. garlic vs. onion debate has been a longstanding one, with people on both sides scratching their heads wondering if it really matters. Let's take a closer look at the differences (and similarities) between shallots, garlic and onions.


Shallots ! How Similar are they to Garlic and Onions ?

Like onion and garlic, shallots are members of the allium family. They are found year-round in grocery-store produce sections, though less predictably than onions or garlic. Some shallots are no larger than walnuts, and some are larger than an entire head of garlic. They can be either single bulbs, similar to pearl onions, or in cloves like garlic.


Shallots differ from onions in a few important ways. First, unlike regular onions, which grow as single bulbs, shallots grow in clusters, more like garlic. Shallots are slightly sweeter than regular onions, and their flavor is more subtle. This makes them especially good as a seasoning in raw applications like vinaigrettes or salads, where they add "onion-like" flavor without too much punch, or in slow roasted or braised dishes, where their sweetness can really enhance a dish without watering it down.  Shallots work especially well in dishes where they're eaten raw, like dressings, hawaiian poke bowls and salads, and can seamlessly blend into delicate quiches and custards. The flavor of shallot is "mild onion" with a slight "garlic-like" bite. It's prepared like onion, usually sliced or chopped. But when cooked, shallots should not be browned, because like garlic, they turn bitter. Yellow and white onions have a more pungent flavor, but they soften and mellow as they cook, eventually taking on a lighter, sweeter flavor.


Some people have a difficult time differentiating onions and shallots simply because some shallots look like elongated onions. The feature that sets shallots apart from onions is the fact that they grow in clusters on a plant and reveal cloves similar to garlic. The skin color of onions and shallots vary between golden brown, grey, and reddish hues while their flesh is usually off white with a gradient that is close to their skin color. What do they taste like? Not only do shallots look like a cross between garlic and onion, they also taste like a mixture of garlic and onion.


Onions

Onions come in a beautiful variety of hues and textures, from pure white to deep purple, and in flavors that range from nearly as sweet and mild as a pear - to powerful punchy, to deeply spicy. They range in size from the gargantuan orbs the size of a softball, to tiny pearls, and even come in a strangely flattened form from Italy, namely the cippolini.  There are many varieties of onions. To make it easier, onions have been categorized into three basic types. Each kind of onion has attributes that make it the best type of onion for different regions or conditions. Some onions are better for soups, because they have a higher sugar content, others can be eaten raw and others are better for dishes like french onion soup. In a typical food grocery store, named onions include: Red onions, Yellow onions, Spanish onions, and Pearl onions. Bermuda onions are great for stuffing and baking, they're also delicately sweet which means they won't overpower the ingredients you combine them with. There size makes them the go-to choice for stuffing. Red Wing Onions is a mild onion type, great for eating raw which make them the perfect choice for sandwiches and salads. You can cook with them but we suggest consuming raw. Vidalia Onions are super sweet. We're talking eat it raw and don't even blink. The Vidalia is the perfect choice in the family of sweet onions. Pearl Onions are mild, small and sweet - good for pickling in a jar and also great to roast with the juices left in the pan after cooking meat. They also add a unique and wonderful flavor to homemade gravy.


Shallots

Shallots are also known as "multiplier onions" have outer skins that is often reddish-brown, and consists of many papery outer layers, similar to the onion. The color of the shallot flesh is white with purplish-pink tinges. Shallots varieties come in a couple of different colors, including pale purple with brown skin being the most common. In the United States, you will almost always find the regular plain shallot. The banana shallot, sometimes called a torpedo shallot, are much longer and straighter. What is nice about these larger shallots is that they are easier to peel and have a milder taste. The French gray shallot is considered the ultimate in shallot superiority. The French long have used shallots in their dishes, especially classic beurre blanc, white butter sauce. In addition to sauces, shallots also are used frequently in soups and dressings. Or substitute them for onions or garlic in almost any dish. The award winning recipe "Caramelized Shallots" is worth trying in your kitchen.


Garlic

Garlic cloves have a characteristic pungent, spicy flavor that mellows and sweetens considerably with cooking. It imparts a garlic flavor and aroma in food, minus the spiciness. Garlic can be categorized into three basic types. Softneck, Hardneck and Bolting Hardneck. Hardneck garlic is more flavorful and the cloves are bigger and easier to peel than softnecks. Softneck garlic, the kind usually found in supermarkets and often imported, has the best storage life and is easier to braid than hardnecks. Softneck garlic is a non-bolting type (Allium sativum sativum). This is the main type grown commercially in California. It rarely bolts (produces a seed stalk). It has larger bulbs with numerous cloves of variable size in a somewhat random arrangement. Heads have 6-18 cloves in layers around a soft central stem. The clove skin varies from white to pink, rose or purple. It has a good storage life. Soft neck garlic includes the following groups: Artichoke (California Early and California Late), Silverskin, Creole, Asiatic, and Turban. Hardneck /bolting/stick garlic (Allium sativum ophioscorodon) is also called ‘stick’ garlic usually bolts and produces small bulblets instead of flowers, on top of a seed stalk. The cloves are in a single circle around a central woody stem and produce about 5-10 cloves per head. It typically has a shorter storage life than soft neck garlic. Hardneck garlic includes the following groups: Porcelain, Rocambole, and Purple Stripe and Marbled Purple Stripe.


What’s the difference between a shallot and an onion?

Shallots have a delicate and sweet flavor with a hint of "garlic" sharpness, while yellow onions have a nice balance of astringency and sweet in their flavor, becoming sweeter the longer they cook. Onions are usually fist-sized with a fairly tough outer skin and meaty layers. Spanish onions are a particular kind of yellow onion and we find them to be slightly sweeter and more delicate in flavor. Shallots have a lots of flavor, and they have properties that can improve your cooking. A raw shallot is strong and pungent in flavor (similar to raw onion), and when cooked, they are much more mild and slightly sweet. You can substitute shallots in nearly any recipe that calls for onions—just make sure you’re using the same volume. Shallots can be used in any dishes as a replacement for onion, but they are so different from garlic that they should not be used as a replacement. I have heard stories of people going to the grocery store and grabbing a shallot when the store was out of garlic. This is not a great exchange, and they were not pleased with the results. Shallot is one of the ingredients that separates top-notch restaurant cooking from the home cook. Chefs love them, while some home cooks are scared to use them. 



Large Onion and Shallots

Growing Shallots

Shallots are also just as easy to grow as garlic. Here's what you need to know. Shallots come as sets which are individual dormant bulbs. Begin by separating the bulbs into individual cloves. You may notice that shallots are similar to onions in outer appearance, but inside you will find they have cloves rather than layers, which is more similar to garlic. Shallots, like other alliums, prefer growing in a nutrient-rich, loose soil that drains well. With any soil type, consider amending with compost and broken-down or rotten straw to add nutrients and improve water-retention. Just like garlic, shallots prefer soil that drains well and has a high composition of organic matter. If your soil is loaded with clay, you may also consider growing shallots in raised beds in a soil composition you have more control over. The best soil pH for shallot is around 7.0. Like garlic, shallot plants are heavy feeders and benefit from a regular feeding of organic fertilizer. The root system of shallot plants is extremely shallow, and the plants need consistent water in order to thrive and grow well.



Planting & Growing Shallots

Growing shallots is similar to growing garlic. We plant shallots in the fall and space each planting hole at least 6 - 8 inches apart in rows that are 12 - 18 inches apart. Like garlic, we plant shallot bulbs with the root-end down and pointed-end up. We keep the bulbs just deep enough so that the top 1/4 inch of the bulb is visible and sticking out of the soil. Mulching shallots is a good idea. We add a 4-inch layer of mulch on top of the shallots (broken-down straw, not hay) for protection and nutrients since shallots grow near the soil surface and have shallow root systems. In the spring when the shallots begin to sprout, we remove excess mulch as the soil warms in spring. If you missed the opportunity to plant in the fall, you can plant shallots in the spring. Shallots planted in the spring also benefit from and inch or two of mulch, as it protects the shallots from cold snaps and helps avoid the new bulbs from drying out. Keep in mind that rain storms and improper irrigation may expose newly planted shallots, which may result in interest with certain birds. Re-cover any shallot bulbs that may become too exposed, and consider using garden netting to prevent critters from playing with and pulling up your shallots. We water the soil around the planted shallots thoroughly while avoiding getting the soil too wet. It is important to prevent the shallots from dry out, but do not overwater. Shallots do not like weeds! Be sure to remove all weeds as they appear to keep nutrient competition down.


Shallots make a great addition to the kitchen garden, especially if you already love onions and garlic. Planting and growing shallots in your garden is easy and rewarding. A garden can be an extension of your living space. If you cook with garlic and shallots, why not grow garlic and shallots? Your garden space will reflect your style and be a place where you want to spend time. Your garden can benefit and enrich your life in so many ways. Yes, of course there is the kitchen garden where you grow annual herbs and vegetables. But we want to inspire you to grow harvestable plants throughout your entire landscape. This means growing edible plants that provide for use in the kitchen as well as throughout your home and beautiful arrangements. And just because a garden is beautiful doesn't mean it cannot be useful. Grow your own shallots and add a gourmet touch to your favorite meals.


Harvesting Shallots

Both the shallots green "tops" and the bulbs can be eaten, so the time to harvest a shallot plant depends on the part you will be using. The tops can be harvested within 30 days after the bulb sprouts, and are commonly used in soups, salads and stews. Many shallot growers also use the leafy tops as alternatives to green onions or chives in recipes. These can be harvested once the leafy tops have substantial growth, about a month after planting.


Shallots bulbs are typically ready to harvest in summer once the leafy tops wither (usually 90 days from planting) and a paper skin develops on the bulbs. If you are new to growing shallots, you may have a difficult time knowing when to harvest shallots. The bulbs will take around 90 days to mature. Examine the shallot tops for dryness. When two-thirds to three-quarters of the stems have yellowed, fallen over and are dry to the touch, it's time to remove the mature bulbs from the ground. In other words, harvest shallot bulb should begin when the greens of the plant start to wither, fall over and die. They will turn brown and become droopy while the bulbs will protrude from the soil and the outer skin becomes papery. This usually happens in mid to late summer. We've found that pulling the shallots out of the ground is not always a good idea. Instead, loosen the soil around the shallot bulbs and carefully pull up shallots, leaves and all. Gently remove as much soil as possible from the plants. After extracting the shallot bulb and plant from the soil, move the entire plant, roots and all, to a cool, dry place for about 7-10 days. Partial shade is recommended if you are allowing shallots to cure. Remove root ends and leafy tops and store (like onions and garlic) for future culinary use. Store as you would garlic, in a cool, dry location with some circulation.




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