Often associated with fine French cuisine, the delicate onion-like flavor of cooked shallots brings a touch of sophistication to a wide range of dishes. Shallots (Allium cepa) are a member of the onion family, a hardy plant that is able to tolerate frost and does well in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 2 to 9. Many people confuse shallots with green onions, scallions or leeks, but they are easily distinguished from these three relatives by their distinctive bulbs, which are made up of two or more cloves.
Anyone who has shopped for shallots at the local grocery store has come in contact with one of these types of shallots since the French Red is the most common variety sold commercially. French varieties all have brownish-red skin, pink-purplish flesh and pear-shaped bulbs. Their flavor is a subtle combination of onion and garlic. Like all shallots, their flavor is at its best after being lightly sauteed in butter, though they can also be eaten raw. Some of the more common varietals for home gardeners include Pikant, Atlas, Ambition, Ed’s Red and Creation. These varieties are propagated from bulbs and grow to maturity in 80 to 90 days. With proper temperature and humidity, they can keep for 8 to 10 months, but they tend not to store as well as onions or other shallot varieties.
Gray or Griselle
Many people, especially in France, believe the gray or griselle variety of shallot to be the best in terms of flavor. In fact, the French consider the gray shallot to be the “true shallot,” though all shallots share the same taxonomic classification. The pear-shaped bulbs are relatively large, about 4 inches long with thick, gray-blue wrinkled skin, purple-white flesh and a distinctive flavor. Gray shallots are also started by dividing and planting bulb sets, but take slightly longer to mature than French varieties, approximately 100 days. They, too, do not store as long as other varieties.
The flavor of Dutch shallot varieties is stronger and more like an onion than other shallot varieties. They feature orange-yellow skin and yellow- to cream-colored flesh with blubs that tend to be rounder and smaller, averaging about 2 inches in diameter. Also started by planting bulbs during the cool season, popular Dutch varieties include Dutch Yellow and Chicken Leg, both of which mature in 90 to 100 days. These varieties store well for longer periods than French or Gray varieties.
Unlike other shallot varieties, hybrid shallots are typically grown from seed and planted in the spring. This makes for a longer time between planting and harvest, anywhere from 100 to 110 days. Available in both red and yellow varieties, they all store better than the non-hybrid varieties. Popular varieties include Prisma (red), Matador (red), Ambition (red) and Saffron (yellow). As hybrids, they will not reproduce true to type if allowed to go to seed and replanted.