Shallots are a close relative of onions, spring onions and garlic. They are all in the Allium family.
The shallot is quite an exceptional vegetable, renowned for its more delicate flavour than an onion which makes it a firm favourite for anyone enjoying fresh, raw and slightly fiery pungency in their cooking.
Chefs prefer them to onions as we alluded to before because they are excellent when used whole as well as sliced. Add to stews and casseroles and slice up for salads. The flavour is more sophisticated and less pungent and fiery than an onion. Excellent for pickling. They are extremely versatile too and their size means that you can use a whole bulb without having to leave a half one wrecking the fridge or kitchen.
The bulb is often grown from sets which are immature bulbs. It also means you can get up to 12 more bulbs from a single sown bulb although 6 to 8 is more usual.
History Behind Shallots
In ancient Persia, records point to the shallot being part of religious rites and sacred to key gods.
The French have taken ownership of the shallot even though it originated in south-east Asia before being ‘discovered’ by the ancient Greeks who spread it throughout the Mediterranean. The French started using it in earnest from the late 11th Century and it has been developed and cultivated ever since. Many of the ancient varieties are found in Anjou, the Loire and Brittany. In fact a ‘Coq Au Vin’ needs shallot to lift it out of the realms of a chicken broth. They also store extremely well which makes them ideal for that dry space in the shed.
Nutritionally, shallots like onions are packed full of vitamins and minerals. A wonderful combination of polyphenols, flavonols, even anthocyanins in the skin are all healthy components to be made full use of. It also contains plenty of manganese which we know from studies with birch water, in sufficient quantities is needed for good immune health. Like garlic too, it is touted for good circulation and heart health, energy, lowering cholesterol and reducing blood pressure or hypertension. Really wouldn’t be without them in the garden and yes they are straightforward to grow !
Varieties Of Shallots
Their are three different types to choose from: grey/French, pink/Jersey and banana/Echalion.
The grey or French type of shallots possess a slight greyish tinge in the flesh when they are stored and dried. For many this is the best type although we like the pink especially. The ‘Griselle‘ is said to be the original or true shallot which is why many growers prefer them though. I think its a matter of personal choice. We in the UK tend to grow this one and the French absolutely love it.
The pink or Jersey varieties have a rounder shape than the grey French types. These have a copper skin with pink or even red-purple flesh. They are commonly seen in shops and added whole to casseroles or stews. A good type for pickling too. There are many different varieties of this type to choose from and have become extremely popular in the USA as well.
The banana or Eschalion/Echalion types are in fact a cross between a shallot and an onion. For some reason they also have a torpedo shape but are not as harsh in flavour as a typical onion. We like them because they grow larger than the round bulbous shallots. Chefs like them because they can be sliced lengthways and in half. That makes them easier to chop up without slicing a finger – have you tried chopping up small round bulbs?
cv. ‘Camelot‘. A striking variety which is red skinned. Stores very well. Not as common as its should be because the flavour is mild so good for salads.
cv. ‘Golden Gourmet‘. Medium to large sized round bulbs from sets. A heavy cropper which always performs well in poor growing conditions so reliable in more Northern European climates. Has a yellow skin and mild flavour. Good in salads and for pickling. Does not bolt or only rarely!
cv. ‘Griselle‘. The one chefs choose because it is the ‘true shallot’. It was originally growing wild in Central Asia. It has purple-pink flesh with a grey skin which makes it stand out from other cultivars. The shape is more like a tear and has a slight curve in the neck as well. A fine strong flavour which is excellent with pork chops and beef steaks.
cv ‘Jermor‘. A long standing favourite of this author because of its superb taste. The RHS have given this shallot its RHS Award of Garden Merit. It is slightly elongated in shape. The bulb is copper skinned with a pink tint in the flesh. Excellent flavour and ideal raw or when used in refined sauces and dips. Each bulb produces between six and eight further bulbs. Most of the crop for sale in shops is grown in Brittany which is this country’s main growing area for these bulbs. Always a good cropper given the right conditions.
cv. ‘Matador‘. F1 Reddish-brown bulbs with a mild flavour which come from seed. High yields with a good dry matter content. Excellent for roasting.
cv. ‘Meloine‘. Another super tasting shallot for the chef and one which is used by them in salsas and to make a less pungent version of aioli. It has a wonderful zing that rivals Jermor in taste. A good if not heavy-cropping variety. The bulbs are round, fat and plump. The skin is red-yellow and the flesh is generally pale and slightly creamy. It is one for storing as it keeps well in the shed. Resistant to downy mildew and various rotting molds.
cv. ‘Pesandor‘. Produces long slender bulbs similar to a banana shallot with a pinkish tinge throughout the flesh. Great for slicing, salads and layering.
cv. ‘Pikant‘. Sharp flavoured and high yielding. Bolt resistant.
cv. ‘Red Sun‘. On of the largest bulbs. Has reddish-brown skin. The flavour is less striking than Melione or Jermor but don’t be put off as it has good keeping qualities – may be the best and ideal for end of season cooking. We prefer it for pickling because of its round shape.
- Hardy, easy to grow and low maintenance (even compared to an onion)!
Start looking for seed i.e. small bulbs from late August onwards. Taylors amongst other specialist suppliers in the United Kingdom will always have a ready selection. The actual seed is intended for commercial growers with large mechanical sowing systems so its not really suited to the garden.
We grow shallots either in allotted rows or between vegetables that have not fully occupied their space like cabbage and broccoli. A number of gardeners will plant salad crops between the main space for bulbs. Radish, spring onions, tiny turnips and lettuce all work. As with such planting, these crops are pulled before the shallots are ready for harvesting in mid-Summer.
As they mature earlier than onions, shallots can be sown earlier too although it makes little difference in truth. We grow autumn sown onions and shallots at the same time and this has little impact on overall size. Actually the shallot prefers colder conditions than an onion.
Some varieties are suited to Spring growing but are not that common to find. Read the growing times on any particular growth instructions for certain varieties to be absolutely sure. Try container growing if the Autumn cuts up rough and then plant them out in Spring (see later in the article).
- The planting time is usually between November and March.
Ideally, avoiding frost is best however there are a number of varieties which we grow that actually benefit from some short sharp cold conditions. Any shallots planted in autumn are usually harvested earlier and are certainly bigger in size with a better yield. However, as with garlic, flavour also matters, and some of the smaller shallots have better is not absolutely superb taste and pungency as a result of their slightly more diminutive size.
If you buy sets, these can be broken into 6 to 8 small bulbs for planting. We even take some of our older plants, break them up again and plant them – there isn’t a change in size when fully matured and its cheaper at times.
Good well-drained and fertile soil which sees regular sun. Avoid excessive shade as with overhanging trees but they do benefit from shelter.
To improve fertility of any soil, add plenty of composted grass and leaves a few weeks beforehand so that nitrogen is present in the soil. It produces the best sized bulbs. You can also add well rotted manure. I avoid adding too much however because of the dreaded onion rust which often appears in Summer because growth has been exceptionally lush. Having said that, some blood and bone meal doesn’t come amiss.
Some growers have clay soil which is broken up with lime and liberal doses of compost to improve soil conditions.
Plant bulbs in rows with the tip just pointing above the soil surface. Use a dibber to avoid damaging the basal plate when sowing or hitting a stone if you push into the soil. Let the tip just poke out. It seems to reduce rot setting in before the roots start forming. This is especially so in Autumn sown bulbs.
The roots can be so strong they push the bulb out of the ground. To overcome this we make sure the ground we dib into is well broken up and not compact.
We space between 15cm and 18cm apart (7in. max.) with 30cm between rows. Some growers like to have a row space which is greater than 30 cm so that the largest bulbs are possible but a growing area is usually at a premium and a compromise often needed.
Allow enough space to weed as these will out compete bulbs. We use an onion hoe which is ideal for working out weeds between bulbs.
Birds and insects are a nuisance, so an open weave cloche or fine netting is ideal. Birds tend to pull the shallots out thinking the tips are worms. Blackbirds are the worst and a cat doing its usual will often redistribute many of the bulbs. Replant!
Container Growing Of Bulbs
If the plot you grow on is prone to extreme damp and even flooding then growing these bulbs in containers is the solution. The best time for this is the early spring. Choose spring growing varieties by the way if flooding over winter is the issue. We also start the bulbs off sometimes in containers in the autumn this way as well. It means we can move them about more easily and they are occasionally transferred to the greenhouse where it is warmer and drier as needed. It also means the birds cannot get at them.
If space is limiting, we also place them in a cold frame as well because some cold is advisable in the winter months.
Use 9-10cm (3½in. to 4in.) pots. The alternative is large modular trays that hold 12, 16 and 18 pots. Plants sets exactly as you would when in the ground. They will also grow as needed with roots filling the pots in no time.
Pots will dry out more quickly so just keep on the damp side. Extremes of both temperature and dryness versus being wet can induce flowering. Take off the flower spike as soon as it starts to form which is usually late spring. We usually compost but you can eat them in salads like chive flowers.
Shallots From Seed
Some shallots can be grown from seed but this is quite rare. They only produce one bulb per seed but you can grow them closer together. Space between 5 and 8cm apart (2-3in.) and 1 cm (½in.) deep.
During Growth And Aftercare
Keep watered as prolonged dry periods produce reduced amounts. Hoe carefully to remove competing weeds.
Remove flowers to prevent bolting.
Harvest when the leaves have started drying and turning yellow-brown. I prefer to let the leaves turn brown fully if the weather during the summer is suitable. Yellowing usually starts around July with the majority of shallots. You can start harvesting the earliest varieties from June onwards though.
When the soil is slightly dry, lift carefully with a fork and place on the side to continue their drying in sun for a couple of days.
Store in a cool dry and airy place as with onions. Because they are not onions, the bulbs are smaller and will dry more quickly. They also store for much longer than onions. Check for damage and use these early on.
They last ages unless you guzzle them. Any damaged ones can be flash fried which means heating up some vegetable oil in a pan and searing the whole bulb until it browns. Allow to cool and freeze in small bags. This prevents wasting the damaged ones because they can be added to casseroles and stews during the lean months of the year.
Shallots suffer the same issues as onions when it comes to pests and diseases.
Allium Leaf Miner occurs when female flies lay their eggs and the maggots produced start feeding on the leaves and the bulbs. Any affected bulbs need to be used as soon as possible. Cover the bed with Enviromesh™ to stop them taking hold. They can come in with unrotted manure.
Onion Downy Mildew affects both leaves and bulbs. It is an issue in damp, colder ground. The best method is to increase the space between bulbs so that airflow is high. Destroy all infected leaves.
Onion White Rot is a fungal disease where white fungal growths affect the base of the bulb. This is also characterised by black dots. All tools used in gardening should be cleaned well anyway. Avoid growing bulbs in the affected area for between seven and ten years.
Pickling of shallots is the way many of us prefer to take them. A good quality malt vinegar or even balsamic vinegar will do the job. They taste extraordinary and their crunchy texture make them exceptional with cheese or a Ploughman’s lunch.
The preferred method is to pour boiling water over the bulbs and leave for 2 minutes. This heat helps with skin removal and peeling. Pack a Kilner jar with as many bulbs as possible and pour over the vinegar.
If you want to use spices it is best to add to the vinegar beforehand and boil for a few minutes. Allow to cool before pouring over the shallots. Peppercorns can be added when the vinegar is poured into the jar. Seal the jar.
These jars can be stored for a few months. Once opened keep in the fridge but they were originally designed to be stored at room temperature.
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