When To Consider A Shallot Substitute
A shallot substitute can be one of two things. Either you don't have shallots when the recipe calls for some and you have to come up with an acceptable substitute, or you have shallots and you would like to substitute them for something else, like onions, and are curious as to what the result might be.
Most people are very familiar with onions and garlic, and less so with the shallot. People who cook many different dishes, chefs for example, are certainly well aware of shallots and when best to use them. For most people though, the shallot seems to be nothing more than a rather small onion, and one that is certainly more expensive than even a large onion might be. You will find shallots used in many Far Eastern dishes, Thai cooking for example, and the French, who are of course masters at creating subtle and delicate flavors, put shallots to good use in many of their sauces. The French might consider a shallot substitute for onions as appropriate in many cases, but rarely the other way around. While it is possible to replicate the taste of shallots with a careful blending of onions and garlic, such a shallot substitute would probably not even be considered by a top French chef.
What Is A Shallot? - Shallots are members of the Allium family, which includes among other plants, onions, garlic, and leeks. The term scallion is sometimes confused with the shallot, but the scallion is a green onion, and while the shallot looks like an onion while it still has its outside skin on, it is not an onion. The mature shallot bulb breaks into segments or cloves, a does the garlic. The shallot is special in that it tastes a bit like an onion and a bit like garlic, but is much milder than either. What you have in a shallot then, is a flavorful vegetable with a mild onion-garlicky flavor. The reason many chefs prefer to use a shallot substitute for onions and/or garlic is that the shallot generally does not overpower the other ingredients in a dish or sauce.
Fake Shallots - If you are preparing a dish which calls for shallots and you suddenly find you don't have any on hand, or purchased onions, thinking they were no different than shallots, you can prepare the following shallot substitute. Simply dice 2 parts onion, sweet or mild onions would be preferable, and mix with 1 part diced garlic. If you are a chef, do this when no one is looking. If you are cooking at home, and your family leans towards meat and potatoes, no one will know the difference, except that the dish might seem to taste better than was the case with onions. It will just be a little stronger than would have been the case if you'd used shallots.
Perhaps one reason more people don't purchase shallots is because they look like small, pricey onions and larger, cheaper onions might seem to be a better buy. But if you are going to be cooking dishes or sauces which need to have a rather delicate flavor with just a hint of onion and/or garlic, shallots really should be given a try.
Planting Shallots - Shallots are not hard to grow. Bulbs or cloves are planted the same as your would plant onions or garlic. They require a well drained soil but need to be kept moist doing the growing phase. Once the tops begin to die down you can cut down on the watering. A shallot plant will tend to grow with a bunch of shallots, perhaps 4 or 5, appearing at the surface of the soil. The tendency would be to cover them up, but most gardeners don't do that as that is simply the way shallots grow, and being exposed to the sunlight and air doesn't appear to hurt the bulbs one bit.
Storage - Once harvested you can either keep the stems on and braid the plants together to hang in a dry place, or place the bulbs in a mesh sack and hang the sack in a dry place where it will get a little air circulation. Shallots will keep that way for about two months. If any of the cloves start to sprout, they will still be good eating, but remove the sprouts first as they can impart a bitter taste. Another way to store shallots is to dice them when fresh and then freeze them. Once thawed, they will no longer be as crisp, but the flavor will still be there. Shallots by the way are not eaten raw, the way you might eat a green onion. Though their taste is somewhat delicate when lightly cooked, it is somewhat potent when eaten raw. Hot might even be a better description, but properly prepared, these vegetables are a delight. Try a shallot substitute in your next dish calling for onions and taste the difference.