As a line cook in the early 2000s, I learned exactly how addicting fried shallots can be: If, after painstakingly frying them, I left them anywhere in sight, I’d wind up with an empty jar as other cooks grazed on them throughout the day. The same thing happens at home now if I leave them out, in reach of my wife, Adri, and my 5-year-old daughter, Alicia.
But, for as quickly as they’re gone (and as time consuming and finicky as frying them can be), I find I prefer to buy my fried shallots from Asian supermarkets. It’s a convenient, cost-effective move that can infuse so many dishes with flavor and crunch. Not to mention, having them on hand means I can replace them faster than they can disappear into Alicia’s belly.
They may not be as good as freshly fried, but the time, effort and money you’ll save is more than worth it. And most cooks I spoke to regularly turn to them.
“I’ve probably only a made them myself a dozen times in my life, and even then most of those times would be because I ran out of the store-bought,” the Malaysian Australian food writer and chef Adam Liaw told me.
Look for store-bought shallots with a short ingredient list, preferably just shallots and some form of oil.Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.
Crisp, sweet and aromatic, fried shallots are a staple condiment of Southeast Asian cuisine, frequently appearing in salads and noodle dishes, or paired with eggs and rice. When Adri and I spent a few days in Nong Khai, a town on the Thailand-Laos border, we had several delicious Isan salads at DD Restaurant. One tossed pork belly with fresh red onions, tomatoes and herbs in a sweet-sour-spicy sauce made with fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar, garlic and Thai chiles, and was finished with a shower of fried shallots.
At the start of every 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 an instant shortcut to a flavor-packed lunch or simple side salad to a dinner off the grill. Think hot chicken thighs, fish, cold slices of leftover steak or pork, or a wide range of vegetables and fruit. The sweet juiciness of summer watermelons or stone fruit with torn mint and crunchy peanuts is especially delicious 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’s behind the popular Burmese pop-up Love Khao Swe in San Francisco, says they are 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 fried shallots’ savory sweetness complements a tart tamarind dressing.
My friend Leela Punyaratabandhu, who has written several Thai cookbooks, calls fried shallots her “go-to salad enhancer.” She frequently uses them to turn familiar Western dishes into something new. They’re revelatory on a niçoise salad made with high-quality oil-packed tuna, folded into tuna or egg salad, or sprinkled over a classic iceberg wedge with blue cheese dressing.
Store-bought fried shallots are used as garnish and incorporated into an aioli in this Caesar salad.Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.
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, grinding them with an immersion blender while forming a creamy emulsion with egg, lemon juice, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, garlic, oil and a big dash of fish sauce. I’ve used this dressing to dip fat stalks of grilled spring asparagus and broccolini, and combined it with sour cream and chives to serve it like French onion dip with chips. I’ve slathered it onto toasted buns to serve with smashed burgers that I topped with griddled and raw onions, pickles and more fried shallots.
They’re also a natural pairing for eggs. Both Ms. Punyaratabandhu and Pailin Chongchitnant of the popular YouTube channel Hot Thai Kitchen mentioned khai luk khoei, or son-in-law eggs: deep-fried boiled eggs that are 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, cooking them into an omelet or mixing them into the eggs for your frittata, Spanish tortilla or quiche before cooking.
Christopher Tan, a food writer and recipe developer in Singapore, mentioned their ubiquity in both home cooking and hawker dishes, such as chee cheong fun (steamed rice noodle rolls) or the Indian Muslim dish mee rebus (chewy wheat noodles in a thick gravy with chiles and lime). In Vietnam, you’ll find fried shallots topping bowls of pho tron (a dry-style pho) or seasoning bun noodle salads.
Fried shallots can top a simple weeknight aglio e olio for a delightfully crunchy finish.Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.
But they can also be a last-minute garnish for virtually any pasta dish. Use them to top a classic Italian-style pasta such as aglio e olio for a big punch of sweet, caramelized flavor and crunch. My old mentor, the chef Ken Oringer (“My favorite ingredient!” he said when I mentioned fried shallots), adds them to his family’s mac and cheese, tops chili and baked potatoes with them and folds them into quesadillas.
I use them in place of French’s fried onions for my Thanksgiving green bean casserole, and they’re excellent with mayonnaise, mustard and pickles on top hot dogs, as is common in many parts of Europe. I also put them to use as the “crisp” element in homemade chile crisp, making a quick chile oil, then folding in a mountain of store-bought fried shallots (and some store-bought fried garlic if I have it) for a shortcut.
You don’t have to stick to savory applications. The chef Pim Techamuanvivit of Nari in San Francisco says she loves them in som choon, a dessert of fruit and ice in a fragrant syrup topped with ginger and fried shallots. I recently tasted the everything bagel-flavored ice cream from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams, whose fried onion and garlic “gravel” inspired me to top 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 it side.
When buying fried shallots, I always make sure to 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 them well with salt before using them.
If you want to improve them further, Ms. Chongchitnant suggests toasting them in a single layer on a sheet tray in a 400-degree oven for a few minutes to deepen their flavor. If I’m going to be adding them to a dish that requires stovetop cooking, I’ll do the toasting in a skillet or wok.
Why Frying Shallots Is So Tricky
The relatively low moisture content of shallots compared to, say, onions is one reason they’re so difficult to fry consistently.Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.
If you’re dead-set on frying your own fresh shallots, there are some science-based explanations for why it’s so hard.
The 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, the Maillard reactions, the same cascade of chemical reactions that adds complexity to toasted bread or a seared hamburger patty, start to take place, creating a golden-brown color and a range of aroma molecules (the molecules that go up and into our noses and trigger aroma receptors). But at a certain point, he explained, those reactions become exothermic — that is, they generate heat themselves — which kicks the reactions into high gear. This is when your shallots can easily go from sweet to bitter.
The relatively low moisture content of shallots compared to, say, onions exacerbates the problem. When frying foods, water content acts as a sort of temperature buffer, drawing heat energy from the oil to convert it to steam and evaporate. (The tiny bubbles you see when frying food are actually water converting to steam and escaping.) Only as this moisture dwindles can Maillard browning take place in earnest. In high-moisture, thicker foods — think battered onion rings or panko-breaded chicken cutlets — this takes place relatively slowly. In thin-sliced, low-moisture shallots, it’s fast.
Evenly slicing your shallots will help improve your odds of successfully frying them.Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times. Food Stylist: Simon Andrews.
There are a few precautions you can take to improve your odds of success. First, slice the shallots evenly, as thinner slices will brown before thicker slices are able to crisp. A mandoline-style slicer or food processor with a thin-slicing blade is essential. Then, once the shallot rings start to sizzle in earnest, reduce the heat to maintain a very gentle fry. Doing so will increase the cook time and the window you have before they burn. At this stage, they must also be constantly stirred to ensure even cooking.
To improve their consistency, Yenvy Pham of the Pho Bac restaurants in Seattle suggests partly dehydrating the sliced shallots in a 140-degree oven for 30 minutes to an hour before frying them. Mr. McGee suggested the opposite approach: starting them in hot oil, then draining and toasting them in the oven to finish them more gently. Personally, I stick to an all-stovetop method.
My guess is you’ll quickly see the benefit of keeping some store-bought jars in your pantry. Once cooked, drained and completely cooled, homemade fried shallots will maintain their flavor and crispness for around two weeks, though whether they last that long will depend on your own willpower (and how good your hiding place is).
Recipes: Spaghetti Aglio e Olio e Fried Shallot | Watermelon Salad With Fried Shallots and Fish Sauce | Fried Shallot Caesar Salad | Fried Shallots
And to Drink …
The classic combination of pasta with rich olive oil and sharp garlic calls for a very specific sort of incisive white wine, with lively acidity and no distracting oaky flavors. Adding the sweetness of shallots or even the brininess of anchovies or the heat of red pepper flakes does not change this equation. Many Italian white wines fit the bill, whether Etna Bianco from Sicily, verdicchio from the Marche, vermentino from Liguria, vernaccia from Tuscany, gavi from the Piedmont region or a straightforward Soave from the Veneto. But you needn’t confine yourself to Italy. My secret match with this dish is aligoté from Burgundy. You could also try a restrained Sancerre or other Loire sauvignon blanc, a Cassis from Provence or a Muscadet. ERIC ASIMOV
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