We take onions for granted because you can find them in the supermarket year round. Freshly picked, however, they’re quite a flavorful treat. From shallots to Vidalias, there’s a variety for just about every savory dish you want to cook up.
What, Where & When?
Onions are one of the oldest foods around. Experts have found evidence that ancient Egyptians cultivated the bulbs to eat and use when burying their dead (they thought the shape and concentric layers represented eternal life). The ancient Greeks, meanwhile, thought they improved physical fitness, and in the Middles Ages, people gave them as gifts or money. These days, onions are one of most commonly grown veggies in the U.S.
Onion, of course, is just a general term for a whole group of veggies. To break it down, there are two main types: round, sturdy “bulb” onions (which come in red, white and yellow) and tender, elongated “bunching” onions (scallions). Other smaller varieties include shallots and pickling onions.
Yellow: These are most commonly used in cooked foods; they have a strong flavor due to their high sulfur content, which mellows when cooked. Spanish onions, which are slightly larger and sweeter, also fall in this category.
White: Also good for cooking, they are less pungent than the yellow ones and have a cleaner, fresher flavor.
Red: Red varieties, the sweetest of the family, work well raw or cooked and add a nice color to dishes.
Scallions: Also called spring onions, they’re typically green and white in color, slender and don’t keep as long. Scallions have a crisp, mild onion taste and work well when sprinkled on a dish as a garnish.
Shallots: Smaller, more delicate and sweet, these onions typically have brown skins with light purple and white flesh. They’re best served lightly sautéed or raw in salad dressings.
Pickling Onions: Many types of smaller onions fall into this category, but any onion can be pickled.
Onions are low in calories (a cup has about 65) but are packed with vitamin C, fiber and energy-producing B-vitamins such as B6 and folate. Onions are also rich in antioxidants — quercetin and phenolic acid, to name a couple. Quercetin helps combat inflammation and some research links it to prevention of lung cancer. The National Cancer Institute says onions in general have moderate protective benefits against cancer.
What To Do With Onions
Whether you like your onions raw or cooked, you first have to cut them. That’s where the watery eyes come in. I find the fresher the onion, the more tears I have to deal with. The crying is brought on by the sulfur that’s released when you slice into the veggie. There are many theories for how to avoid the tears. I’ve heard that lighting a candle nearby will suck up some of the sulfur. Others suggest cutting the onion under water or popping it in the freezer for five minutes first. You can even buy onion-cutting goggles (a little excessive, no?); glasses or contacts, if you happen to wear them, might help some. I haven’t found a sure-fire method myself, but the flavor they add to dishes makes them worth a few tears.
Onions are part of the classic culinary combo “mirepoix” (onion, celery and bell pepper), and they have an aromatic quality that adds a good base flavor to all kinds of dishes, from roasted meats and fish to soups, sauces and casseroles. When I want a more robust flavor, I thinly slice raw red onions and hit them with a bit of fresh lemon juice; the pieces add crispness and heat to salads, sandwiches and wraps. You can also grill, roast or sauté onions for topping burgers, pizzas, sandwiches and salads. The smaller varieties have plenty of great uses, too: chopped shallots in vinaigrette and scallions pieces on top of rice dishes, tacos and guacamole.
Shopping Tip: Choose bulb onions that are round and firm; avoid ones that are bruised or moldy. Once cut, refrigerate in an air-tight container or bag to protect other produce from picking up that distinctive onion odor. Store uncut, bulb onions in a cool, dry place for several months. Keep your scallions in the fridge and use them within a week or two.
TELL US: What is your favorite onion recipe? Any tips on tearless cutting?