Home cooking has undergone a paradigm shift in the past twenty-five years. An industry of TV shows, books and flavor gurus has arisen like an airy soufflé, dedicated to helping the home cook create restaurant-quality feasts from the comfort of his or her galley kitchen. One of the outcomes is a better understanding of the techniques, tools and ingredients professional chefs use to make food taste great. But questions linger about certain mysterious ingredients, not least of which is “What the heck is a shallot?”

Complex and Rich

Shallots are a member of the Allium family, which also includes onions, chives, garlic, scallions and leeks. They come in several shades—usually the ones we see in North American grocery stores have rust-colored skin and white flesh tinged purple or green. Compared to onions, shallots have a richer, more concentrated flavor, They’re also sweeter, which aids caramelization, and lack the sharp bite that puts some people off onions.

Their complexity and depth of flavor is why cooks love them. In his book Kitchen Confidential, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain says that shallots are an essential ingredient for great-tasting food. “Shallots are one of the things—a basic prep item in every mise-en-place—that make restaurant food taste different from your food,” he writes. “In my kitchen, we use nearly twenty pounds a day.”

French Fans

When Bourdain wrote about “his kitchen,” he was referring to Brasserie Les Halles, the venerable French restaurant where he served as executive chef. Indeed, French cooking owes much to the flavor of the shallot. David Lebovitz, an American former professional pastry chef living in Paris, notes in this recipe that shallots—les échalotes in French—are essential for a proper vinaigrette to coat a green salad. He also refers to shallots “the chic cousins of onions,” which is probably be the best description ever. Other French approaches involve using shallots as the main ingredient in a savory, vegetarian-friendly tarte tatin.

Asian Options

Shallots are also widely used in Indian and Southeast Asian cooking. They are often added as a flavorful garnish to soups, noodles and fried rice. In some places, fried shallots can be purchased ready-made to sprinkle over dishes, but they are at their best when freshly peeled and sliced. They can complement sautéed vegetables, as in this green bean side dish, or fit perfectly among pickled cucumbers and carrots. So be confused no more. Embrace the shallot and your flavors with flourish.

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