- Food and Cooking
Growing Shallots Organically in Upstate New York
The True Shallot is a member of the onion family (Allium ascalonicum) but not an onion.
It has two defining characteristics that set it apart from Onions.
The first is the taste. Raw, it is like a very pungent onion, but nothing special. Cooked, however, is where it comes into its own.
When sautéed slowly until browned it is much sweeter than any onion, with a more intense aroma.
If you see advertised shallots that taste like a mild Garlic; that is NOT a True Shallot.
The other defining characteristic is that it does not set seed. If you see advertised shallots from seed; that is NOT a True Shallot. They are actually a type of Multiplier Onion (a fine plant in and of itself, and one we used to grow too, but NOT a Shallot).
There are two varieties available to American Growers. One is the Gray, or True, Shallot, the other is the Giant Red, Russian, or Frog-leg Shallot. Only these two have the essential defining characteristics.
The Gray Shallot is the smaller of the two. It comes enclosed in a hard, horny husk and is teardrop shaped, usually about as big as a Garlic.
Left unharvested, it will eventually form a dense bed of small bulb. That habit is actually a "good thing" as they say. If you leave a patch to grow without harvesting you will basically have a perennial source of seed Shallots for use if you run shy.
The foliage looks like chives but the leaves are tougher. Peeled, it reveals a violet bulb with lovely green tinges on the ends. It my experience, it does not keep all year. It is superlative for cooking slowly. It is not good for stir-fry or fast, hot cooking, as the sugar content is high and burns, rendering it almost tasteless.
The Frog-leg Shallot is egg-sized and comes in a copper, papery husk. Its foliage resembles an onion's; larger and tenderer than the Gray Shallot's. Peeled, it is of a lovely violet hue as well, though with less green than the Gray Shallot. It keeps very well, often up to the next harvest. Its taste is every bit as good as the Gray Shallot and it is much easier to work with due to its larger size and ease of peeling (though it will make you tear up as much as the Gray will).
Where to obtain the bulbs:
There are less places that offer these real shallots than the others. I can personally recommend:
Le Jardin du Gourmet
When to Plant:
Shallots can be spring planted or fall planted. I have always planted in the fall as the bulbs get larger and, frankly, in October there was more time than there was for me in May.
If spring planting, get them in as early as the ground can be worked.
In the fall plant them before the ground freezes y several weeks so the bulbs can set roots to anchor them from frost-heaving.
When I planted them in the fall, I still went over the ground in spring and replanted any winter-killed bulbs then.
How to Plant:
Prepare the ground by tillage or forking, and then rake smooth.
Lightly draw lines the length of the bed one foot apart. With a broom handle, make holes every foot down each of the lines.
The holes only need to be as deep as the bulb is long, say 2 inches or so. Insert a bulb, root side down, into each hole.
Tuck any dried leaves down into the hole (birds will grab them and pull up the bulb. Robins think it’s a worm, blackbirds think it’s a shoot).
Smooth the soil over the holes by raking gently with the back of the rake, not the teeth.
Where to Plant:
Shallots do best in old, rich soil with plenty of humus content. When I say ‘old, rich soil’, I mean soil that had been well-manured the year earlier. Shallots, and Alliums generally, don’t much care for raw manure, fresh compost, or harsh fertilizers.
That being said; shallots will give you a good crop in any decent garden soil.
Plant in full sun. A few hours of light shade won’t hurt, but they like the sun, being from Palestine originally, they say.
Shallots are an excellent candidate for companion planting in beds with radishes, lettuces, Broccoli, or other longer maturing or later planted crops.
Cultivation and care:
Weeds can easily overwhelm these plants.
Go through with a hoe once a week. The plants' roots are shallow, but mainly directly under the bulb cluster, so you can hoe shallowly right up to the plant. But take extreme care, DO NOT BREAK OR DAMAGE THE LEAVES.
Each hollow leaf corresponds to a clove. If that leaf is compromised it is an open conduit for infection to spread to the clove below.
Occasionally you will see a plant send up a flower stalk. These will not set viable seed. I usually rogue out these plants (in other words I eat them rather than save them for seed stock).
Shallots are not bothered here by much except slugs, millipedes (in dry years), and occasionally cutworms. Here the Gray Shallot has an advantage because it isn't even bothered badly by these critters.
As I said; any wound to a leaf results in a pipeline for infection and death of the bulb beneath. So, if a slug, millipede, or cutworm gnaws a hole in a leaf: The clove below is a loss.
Other than regular patrols, the most effective method of control I've found are products containing “Spinosad” chemical compounds, derived from Saccharopolyspora spinosa, a bacterium isolated first from crushed sugar cane. It is approved for Organic Growers, (which I am), and highly effective.
Shallots need water early in the growing season, a good soaking at least once a week until June. That is when the bulbs start thickening up. You can back off on the watering then, but if the rains come don't be concerned. They'll be OK.
For fresh use you can use them anytime they are big enough for your needs. But for full flavor they should be mature and cured.
When the leaves begin to splay out and get limper and the bulbs rise toward the surface of the soil, and the skin on those bulbs is a copper colored; it's time to harvest.
With Frog-leg Shallots I usually gather the leaves together in one hand and simply pull. They come out easily. I pile them in a wheelbarrow with all the leaves going in the same direction. Then I lay them out in the sun (in my case on a concrete slab) to cure.
Gray Shallots are more tenacious and require a garden fork to pop them out of the soil. Their foliage also decays much faster so it is easy to lose sight of where they are if you wait too long to harvest.
The weather doesn't affect them at this point. After about 2 weeks, the leaves will have pretty much rotted off.
They can now be sorted. The simple rule of thumb to remember is: “Eat the big, plant the small”. In other words; the smallest bulbs are set aside to be replanted in the Fall (or Spring if you wish) and the largest ones are for eating. The reason is simple. Large bulbs when planted will not give you more or bigger bulbs than the smaller ones, so it makes sense to plant those smaller ones. (We don't bother with the tiniest ones, we just save ones walnut-sized for re-planting.)
Shallots should be stored in shallow boxes for ventilation. It doesn’t have to be dark, as with potatoes. The cooler the storage area, the better. 40-45 degrees F. is an ideal range, but even at 60-65 degrees F. they will last almost to the next harvest more often than not.
The boxes should be gone through thoroughly every couple of weeks to look for “Rotters” and “Sprouters” (ones who have begun to send up green shoots).
If many of them do begin to sprout for whatever reason, simply peel, slice, sauté in a little butter or oil until they are browning, then freeze in containers of a convenient size. These frozen sautéed shallots can be used in cooking just like the fresh.
Now: Enjoy the fruits of the Earth and your labors!!