Choose firm shallots with a sheen on the dry papery skin and no sign of damp patches or powdery mould.
To make shallots easier to peel, first boil them for 30 seconds, then refresh them in lots of cold water.
Look out for large, elongated banana shallots: good flavour, less peeling.
The leaves of young shallots can be used like spring onions.
They might look much like pickling onions, but shallots are a different allium altogether. Their family is ascalonium, a reference to Ascalon (now Ashkelon in Israel) whence shallots were said to have been introduced to Europe by the Crusaders. Ascalon was a famous city even in the Bronze Age, the home of Samson and Delilah, and was certainly a centre for the growing of shallots. But shallots had arrived on the Continent long before the Crusades. The Roman cookery book of Apicius uses shallots in recipes.
In structure they're closer to garlic, growing in heads rather than singly. There are numerous varieties, the small grey shallot, the fat red shallot (actually a deep tawny pink) and the golden brown cuisse de poulet, plump and burnished like a roast chicken thigh. Food historian Alan Davidson reckons they originated in Central Asia, pointing out that they are used in Asian and Indian cooking as well as European.