How to Make Thai-Style Fried Shallots
Thai-style fried shallots were a prized commodity in one of the restaurant kitchens where I worked in Boston. They popped up as a crunchy, savory garnish in any number of dishes on the ever-changing à la carte and tasting menus—sprinkled over a soup with lobster and uni one day, scattered over braised suckling pig glazed with a fish sauce caramel the next. They provided crunch for fish crudos, fresh pasta dishes, and salads, and were incorporated into a labne-based dipping sauce for a fried-onion-string bar-menu snack.
Because they went into almost everything, nearly every cook, as well as the chef expediting at the pass—the air traffic control hub of a restaurant kitchen, where plates get their final once-over and presentation flourish before being sent to tables—had a container of crispy shallots on their station.
Running out of fried shallots in that kitchen simply wasn’t an option; the couple of times that I saw it happen, it wasn’t pretty for the cook who had under-prepped for the night. And for a time, the cook responsible for that duty was me, the garde-manger.
Each week, my station partner and I would plan out our prep work, with a constant eye on our fried-shallot inventory. We’d stash away secret backup deli containers of them, far from the other cooks who always took a liberal approach to prep they weren’t responsible for, in hiding spots in the basement dried-storage area below the main kitchen.
When our fried-shallot reserves ran low, one of us would come in extra early to work to make a big new batch. It was a time-consuming project that required the cook’s undivided attention and a lot of stove and counter space in an already cramped kitchen.
It was a rite of passage in that restaurant—every cook had made them at one point or another, and you built a reputation on the quality of your fried-shallot work. A batch of subpar, slightly greasy shallots would lead to comments like “Whoa, whoa, Chef [the sarcastic deployment of “Chef” to address a cook is one of the most cutting barbs in a restaurant kitchen], what’s up with these shallots? Did Ed make these?”
Never mind that the Ed in question no longer worked there; his disappointing fried-shallot legacy lived on. I was determined not to suffer the same fate, and took pride in my crispy-allium oeuvre.
Professional cooks are a weird bunch. Hopefully there’s nobody in your life who is going to talk trash if your home-cooked fried shallots aren’t perfect, but, just in case, here’s how to make them well.
The Slice Is Right
As with most recipes that involve just a few ingredients, making good fried shallots is all in the details. That starts with how they’re sliced. In order for the shallots to cook at an even rate and achieve a perfect crunchy texture, they need to be sliced to a specific uniform thickness. Unless you’ve undergone years of Arya Stark–style blade training, slicing the shallots by hand with a knife is not going to work. You’ll need a mandoline for this project—trust me.
If you don’t already have one, check out our review of the best inexpensive mandoline slicers on the market.
The fried-shallot master who taught me how to make them always described the ideal thickness as “two credit cards pressed together.” If you slice the shallots any thinner than that, they’ll brown too quickly, before the water in them has been driven out and replaced by oil, resulting in a soggy, oily product. This is a problem that can also occur with potato chips.
How many shallots you want to slice and fry is up to you, but I would say you want to use at least a pound to make the project worth your while. Properly cooked and stored, fried shallots will keep for weeks, so you don’t need to worry about them going bad before they can be used up.
With the shallots sliced into rounds, it’s time to set up everything else you’ll need. Once you start cooking, everything happens quickly; you’ll have a very tight time window before success (golden, crunchy shallots) turns to failure (with both you and the shallots ending up in a dark and bitter place). That means you have to set up your fried-shallot rig before you turn on a burner.
You’ll need the following: a rimmed baking sheet lined with several layers of paper towels, a container of kosher salt, a fine-mesh strainer set inside a heatproof bowl, and a utensil for stirring. I like to use a pair of kitchen tweezers, but a fork or chopsticks will work fine.
Combine your sliced shallots and a couple inches of vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan or pot that you can comfortably pick up and pour from. There needs to be enough oil to keep the shallots mostly submerged, with none of them touching the bottom of the saucepan. Before turning on the burner, stir them well to separate them into individual rings.
0 to 100, Real Quick
Fried shallots are one of the few stovetop projects that I don’t step away from once I start cooking (risotto is another one). I cook them entirely over high heat, stirring constantly as the oil heats up and the shallots begin to cook and bubble. Constantly moving the shallots around as they cook helps them fry at an even rate.
After a few minutes of rapid bubbling, you’ll notice some of the smaller slices of shallot starting to turn a very light, straw-colored yellow. This is the beginning of the end, and it’s time to really lock in and focus, as things will go really fast from here on out.
Keep cooking and stirring as the bubbles begin to slow—this is your indicator that the water in them has been driven out and is being replaced by oil—and the shallots take on a very light golden color. Don’t worry if there are a couple of pale rings in the midst; they’ll catch up to the right level of coloration soon.
Working quickly but carefully, remove the shallots from the heat right when they turn that pale golden color, and pour the contents of the saucepan into the strainer-lined bowl. The shallots end up in the strainer basket, and the hot oil in the bowl beneath it. Carryover cooking causes the shallots to continue to darken even once they’re out of the oil, which is why it’s important to both pull them when they’re pale golden and have your setup ready to go, so that you can move quickly through the remaining steps.
Still moving at a brisk pace, you’ll need to transfer the shallots from the strainer to the prepared baking sheet, spreading them out in an even layer so that they aren’t piled on top of each other.
Next, season the shallots with salt before they cool down—otherwise, the salt won’t adhere to them. You want well-seasoned fried shallots, not a shallot-salt mixture.
The final step is to gently blot the shallots dry. Carefully pull the top layer of paper towels out from under the shallots, leaving the shallots on the layer beneath it, then use the top layer you’ve just removed to blot them. Repeat with the remaining layers of paper towels.
If the shallots were dumped out onto a single layer of paper towels, they would sit on top of the oil-saturated paper, and become greasy rather than crispy. This process allows you to gently blot and dry the shallots without crushing them into crumbs.
Once the shallots are fully dried and cooled, they’re ready to go. You can enjoy them immediately, or carefully transfer them to an airtight container and store them at room temperature for weeks. For long-term storage, I like to line the container with a paper towel and a desiccant packet (homemade or otherwise) to keep my shallots crispy.
You’ll be sprinkling them on pretty much everything in no time, and maybe you’ll have to find a fried-shallot hiding spot of your own to keep them safe from your housemates.
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