I am a tremendous fan of any kitchen process that yields more than one useful pantry item, not to mention any recipe in which there is no waste. Fried shallots and shallot oil are a perfect example, creating two delicious products that can be used independently or together.
A common preparation in Vietnamese cuisine, this is simple and delicious enough to be used with any kind of cooking. Fried shallots are an even more delicious variant on fried onions, and homemade ones knock the socks off of those horrible dehydrated bits in the supermarket that often appear in 50’s style casserole recipes, usually alongside canned cream of mushroom soup. Shallots in general do not get enough love–this deeply-flavored allium can be used as a substitute for onions in sauces and many other dishes where a touch of sophistication is needed. They have a raw flavor that may be a bit intense for some, but become much more mellow and deep in taste when cooked.
Fried shallots can be used as a garnish or addition to all kinds of dishes cold or hot. They are used most extensively in Vietnamese cooking as additions to noodle bowls and soups, but will add a great flavor and texture to sandwiches, omelettes, spring and summer rolls, raw salads, cold composed salads (such as egg or potato salad), and so on. Heck, you can even use them to top that casserole–best to leave the cream of mushroom soup at the supermarket, though. One of my absolute favorite things to do with them is to lay them out with or without breadcrumbs on top of a pan of macaroni and cheese. Best of all is to serve the shallots and shallot oil as accompaniments to a large or festive meal, and allow your guests to experiment.
Shallot oil has as many uses as fried shallots, perhaps even more since it can be used as a cooking oil as well as a dressing or garnish. I enjoy the oil most as a part of a vinaigrette or dressing, as a last-minute flavor booster for soups or cooked vegetable dishes. It works wonders drizzled onto grilled vegetables, fish and meat. It can be substituted for olive oil or butter in cooked or cold dishes such as pasta salads, egg dishes, bean and grain salads, and so on. One of my favorite things to do is to add it to mashed potatoes instead of butter, and then garnish those potatoes with some of the fried shallots as well.
To make fried shallots and shallot oil, peel and slice 8 oz (1/2 lb) of shallots into slices about 1/8th of an inch thick. You can go a bit thicker, but be careful not to slice them too much thinner or they will burn up in the oil. Measure out a cup and a half of oil and pour into a wok, deep skillet or wide saucepan. I use a pan called a sauteuse for this and many other preparations. It’s flat like a saucepan, wide like a skillet and very deep with raised sides. An ordinary skillet with work fine provided it’s not super shallow. Peanut oil is most traditional, but a neutral oil such as sunflower or vegetable will work as well. Often I will use a mixture of half peanut and half vegetable for a well-rounded flavor.
Heat the oil over medium-high heat until it is quite hot. Test the heat by dropping a cube of stale bread in–if it sizzles up right away your oil is ready. Add the shallots and fry for a minute or two. Then reduce the heat to medium-low. There is no pre-set or perfect time for frying the shallots. They are done when they are nicely browned but not burned. A good rule is to remove them from the oil before you think they are finished. They will cook a bit more after being removed from the oil, and a little bit undercooked is far preferable to burnt. Overcooked shallots have a strong, bitter flavor that is unpleasant. They will also impart a bitterness to the oil if burned.
To remove the shallots, I use a spider or metal spatula with drainage holes. Tongs will also work, but may damage the crispy texture of the shallots. Place the fried shallots on a paper or kitchen towel placed on top of a plate. Allow to cool, and store at room temperature in plastic or ceramic with a plastic wrap covering. Allow the oil to cool and strain through wire mesh or cheesecloth into a jar. This can also be kept at room temperature, but will eventually become rancid. You may of course refrigerate it, but of course allow for some time to sit out at room temperature before using. The fried shallots may be refrigerated but I find this destroys their texture. They usually don’t last long enough in my house to spoil, even when stored at room temperature. They should last at least a week if covered loosely with plastic wrap.
This procedure can also be used to create other fried garnishes and flavored oils. A very good one is made of spring onions, perhaps with ginger or garlic added. Thin slivers of garlic are also popular, and traditionally used as a garnish for fish and seafood soups as well as salads and noodle dishes.
A final word of caution : the oil will become rancid over time, so always make sure to taste it before bringing it to the table.