Shallots are a part of the onion family and usually, but not always, smaller, sweeter and more subtly flavoured than regular onions. Another key difference is that they grow in clusters, so that a single shallot often comprises two bulbs.
Thai shallots, especially when fried, have a more pronounced taste then regular shallots, and are often used for garnishing salads and snacks. Banana shallots - a long curved variety are a fashionable addition to sauces and salads. In Britain, they're at their best from mid-December to March.
When buying, look for firm, heavy shallots with a dry wispy skin. If stored in a cool, dark and dry atmosphere, they'll keep for a couple of months. This does depend on the amount of moisture contained in an onion - the dryer and harder the onion, the longer it will keep.
Although there's nothing whiffy about whole, unpeeled onions, once cut, they give off a volatile odour, which irritates the eyes. We haven't yet found a foolproof way of avoiding the 'streaming eyes' syndrome, although some people are convinced that rinsing onions in cold water before chopping, or chewing piece of bread when cutting onions helps alleviate unpleasant symptoms.
IN THE KITCHEN
Peeling shallots is fiddly work. Try blanching them for a few seconds in boiling water before draining and running through with cold water. This loosens the skin and makes peeling much easier.
Roast whole shallots and garlic bulbs, in their skin, alongside joints of meat for a sweet, nutty flavour.
For crisp-fried shallots, lightly salt sliced shallots and leave on one side for 15 minutes before rinsing and patting dry with absorbent kitchen paper. Deep-fry in hot vegetable oil until crisp, before draining. Onions cooked this way make a great garnish, especially for rice dishes. They also freeze well in secured bags.
Use onions immediately after cutting - they lose their flavour rapidly, when cut surfaces are exposed to air.
Shallots are particularly associated with the cooking of Burgundy and Normandy in France. Their mild favour makes them well-suited to sauce-making. They can be used in place of onions in most recipes.