As a line cook in the early 2000s, I learned exactly how addictive fried shallots can be: if I left them somewhere in plain sight after painstakingly sauteed, I’d end up with an empty pot while other cooks use them all over the place. time grazing. day. The same thing now happens at home when I leave them out of reach of my wife, Adri, and my 5-year-old daughter, Alicia.
However, as quickly as they run out (and as time-consuming and finicky as frying them can be), I find myself preferring to buy my fried shallots from Asian supermarkets. It’s a convenient, cost-effective move that can add flavor and crunch to so many dishes. Not to mention, having them on hand allows me to replace them faster than they can disappear into Alicia’s tummy.
They may not taste as good as freshly baked, but the time, effort and money you save will be well worth it. And most chefs I’ve spoken to turn to them regularly.
“I’ve probably only made them a dozen times in my life, and even then most of those times would be because I ran out of store,” Malaysian Australian food writer and chef Adam Liaw told me.
Crispy, sweet and aromatic fried shallots are a staple of Southeast Asian cuisine and are common in salads and noodle dishes, or paired with eggs and rice. While Adri and I were spending a few days in Nong Khai, a town on the Thailand-Laos border, we ate several delicious Isan salads at DD Restaurant. A tossed pork belly with fresh red onion, tomatoes and herbs in a sweet-and-sour-spicy sauce made with fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar, garlic and Thai chiles, and finished with a shower of fried shallots.
At the beginning of each summer I make a large batch of a similar dressing to keep in the fridge. This dressing, along with the shallots in my pantry, are a direct shortcut to a flavorful lunch or a simple salad to a dinner off the grill. Think hot chicken thighs, fish, cold slices of leftover steak or pork, or a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. The sweet juiciness of summer watermelons or stone fruit with cracked mint and crunchy peanuts is especially nice against crispy fried shallots.
In Myanmar, they add crunch and flavor to many types of thoke, salads that can be made with cooked or raw ingredients, or a combination. Mary W., who is behind the popular Burmese pop-up Love Khao Swe in San Francisco, says they’re essential in Shan tofu thoke, a salad of chickpea tofu and lime leaves, and in her nan pia thoke, a coconut chicken noodle salad where De savory sweetness of fried shallots complements a tart tamarind dressing.
My friend Leela Punyaratabandhu, who has written several Thai cookbooks, calls fried shallots her “go-to salad enhancer.” She often uses them to transform familiar western dishes into something new. They’re revealing on a Niçoise salad made with quality, oil-packed tuna, folded into tuna or egg salad, or drizzled over a classic iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing.
Like Ms. Punyaratabandhu, I’ve added fried shallots to my Caesar salad in place of (or on top of) croutons, and recently I started incorporating them directly into the dressing, blending them with an immersion blender while forming a creamy emulsion with egg, lemon juice, mustard , Worcestershire sauce, garlic, oil and a good splash of fish sauce. I’ve used this dressing to dip thick stalks of grilled spring asparagus and broccolini, and combined it with sour cream and chives to serve as a French onion dip with fries. I’ve slathered it on toasted buns to serve with smashed burgers that I’ve topped with grilled and raw onions, pickles, and more fried shallots.
They are also a natural combination for eggs. Both Ms. Punyaratabandhu and Pailin Chongchitnant of the popular YouTube channel Hot Thai Kitchen referred to as khai luk khoei, or son-in-law’s eggs: fried boiled eggs split open, drizzled with a sweet tamarind sauce and sprinkled with the shallots. Sunny side-up eggs fried in plenty of oil are great served with fish sauce, chiles and fried shallots. Try folding them into your eggs before scrambling, cook them into an omelet, or mix them into the eggs for your frittata, Spanish tortilla, or quiche before cooking.
Christopher Tan, a food writer and recipe developer based in Singapore, cited their ubiquity in both home-cooked and hawker dishes, such as chee cheong fun (steamed rice noodle buns) or the Indian Muslim dish mee rebus (chewy wheat noodles in a thick gravy with chili peppers and lime). In Vietnam, you’ll find fried shallots on bowls of pho tron (a dry pho) or spicy noodle salads.
But they can also be a last-minute garnish for just about any pasta dish. Use them to make a classic Italian-style pasta like aglio e olio for a punch of sweet, caramelized flavor and crunch. My longtime mentor, Chef Ken Oringer (“My favorite ingredient!” he said when I mentioned fried shallots), adds them to his family’s mac and cheese, tosses in chili and baked potatoes, and folds them into quesadillas.
I use them in place of French fried onions for my Thanksgiving green bean casserole, and they’re excellent with mayonnaise, mustard, and pickles on hot dogs, as is common in many parts of Europe. I’ve also used them as the “crispy” element in homemade chili chips, making a quick chili oil and then folding a mountain of store-bought fried shallots (and some store-bought fried garlic if I have any) for a shorter one. away .
You don’t have to stick to savory applications. Chef Pim Techamuanvivit of Nari in San Francisco says she loves it in som choon, a fruit and ice cream dessert in a fragrant syrup topped with ginger and fried shallots. I recently sampled the all-bagel-flavored ice cream from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, whose fried onion and garlic “grind” inspired me to make plain vanilla ice cream with a sprinkle of fried shallots and crushed peanuts. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it combination, but I’m firmly on the loving side.
When I buy fried shallots, I always check the ingredients and confirm that the package contains nothing but shallots and some form of oil (they sometimes come with a starch coating or added flavorings), then season well with salt before using them.
If you want to improve them further, Ms. Chongchitnant suggests roasting them in a single layer on a baking sheet in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes to deepen their flavor. If I’m going to add them to a dish that needs to be cooked on a stovetop, I roast it in a skillet or wok.
Why frying shallots is so difficult
If you’re determined to fry your own fresh shallots, there are some scientific explanations for why it’s so difficult.
Food science writer Harold McGee says that, like onions, shallots contain the fructose polymer inulin, a polysaccharide that breaks down into multiple simple sugars when heated, increasing the overall sweetness.
As they continue to heat up, the Maillard reactions, the same cascade of chemical reactions that add complexity to toasted bread or a seared hamburger patty, begin to take place, producing a golden brown color and a series of aroma molecules (the molecules that go up and into our noses and trigger aroma receptors). But at some point, he explained, those reactions become exothermic — that is, they generate heat themselves — causing the reactions to kick into high gear. This is when your shallots can easily go from sweet to bitter.
The relatively low moisture content of shallots compared to onions, for example, exacerbates the problem. When frying food, the water content acts as a kind of temperature buffer, taking heat energy from the oil to convert it into steam and evaporate it. (The little bubbles you see when you fry food are actually water that turns into steam and escapes.) Only when this moisture decreases can Maillard really brown. In moist, thicker foods — think battered onion rings or panko-breaded chicken cutlets — this happens relatively slowly. In thinly sliced, low-moisture shallots, it’s quick.
There are a few precautions you can take to increase your chances of success. First, slice the shallots evenly, as thinner slices will brown before thicker slices can become crispy. A mandolin-style slicer or food processor with a thin blade is essential. Once the shallot rings begin to sizzle, lower the heat to allow them to cook gently. Doing this will extend the cooking time and window you have before they burn. At this stage, they also need to be stirred constantly to ensure even cooking.
To improve their consistency, Yenvy Pham of the Pho Bac restaurants in Seattle suggests partially dehydrating the sliced shallots in a 140-degree oven for 30 minutes to an hour before baking them. Mr. McGee suggested the opposite approach: starting them in hot oil, then draining them and roasting them in the oven for a softer finish. Personally, I stick with an all-stovetop method.
I think you’ll soon see the benefit of keeping a few store-bought jars in your pantry. Once cooked, drained, and cooled completely, homemade fried shallots will retain their flavor and crunch for about two weeks, but whether they’ll last that long is up to your own willpower (and how good your hiding place is).
Recipes: Spaghetti Aglio e Olio and Fried Shallot † Watermelon salad with fried shallots and fish sauce † Caesar salad Fried Shallot † Fried Shallots
And to drink…
The classic combination of pasta with rich olive oil and sharp garlic calls for a very specific kind of sharp white wine, with lively acidity and no disturbing oak flavors. Adding the sweetness of shallots or even the saltiness of anchovies or the heat of red pepper flakes doesn’t change this equation. Many Italian white wines fit the bill, be it Etna Bianco from Sicily, verdicchio from the Marche, vermentino from Liguria, vernaccia from Tuscany, gavi from the Piemonte region or a simple Soave from the Veneto. But you don’t have to limit yourself to Italy. My secret match with this dish is aligoté from Burgundy. Also try a modest Sancerre or other Loire sauvignon blanc, a Cassis from Provence or a Muscadet. ERIC ASIMOV