Maybe you love them, maybe you hate them. They make you cry, they stink, they’re picky about where they want to be stored…But, onions are a staple ingredient in many recipes! I used to hate onions, but the more I cooked the more I realized how delicious they get when cooked and how versatile they are. They really can transform a dish from blah to yum!
That being said, while they don’t provide much nutritional value or functionality in a recipe, flavor is really what onions are all about. They’ll have a few vitamins and minerals in them, but you won’t be turning toward an onion to meet your daily needs of anything. Plus, a recipe will work just fine without onion (unless it’s French onion soup…) Still, cooking and eating would be much less pleasurable if onions were cut from my life, so let’s take a closer look at this stinky veggie.
Where do onions come from?
Onions are a member of the allium family, along with garlic and chives. Most varieties are layered bulbs of flesh covered with a few layers of thin, papery skin.
Onions are grown in the ground for about 6 months before they are harvested. During this time, 2/3 of the onion sits above the soil, while the lower 1/3 is buried. They have characteristic green stalks that grow out of the top. When the bulb is ready, the stalks will go limp and eventually brown.
“Spring” onions (like sweet onions) are in season March-August, but if you leave ’em in the ground a few weeks longer, they’ll form a tougher skin and lose moisture. At this point they become “winter” onions, and are ideal for storing for long periods of time. Spring onions tend to be sweeter, winter, more pungent.
While most of the onion production in the world happens in China, most of those produced there are also consumed there! For the rest of us, the largest supplier of onions is the Netherlands. Here in the United States, our biggest growers of onions are Idaho, Washington, California, and Oregon. We’re talking billions of pounds of onions in the US alone – and we only produce 4% of the onions in the world! That’s a lot of onions.
Types of onion
There are lots of different varieties of onions, and some of them work for certain dishes better than others. Here’s a list of the most common types you’ll come across in your kitchen at home (well, if you buy them at the store).
The most versatile and prevalent of the onions! You’ll recognize this onion by its yellow-brown papery skin. Inside, the onion itself is white, and has a strong sulfury aroma. If you’re reading a recipe and it doesn’t specify which type of onion, you can’t go wrong with yellow.
These look similar to yellow onions, but are larger and usually appear more “squished” or flattened. The papery skin is slightly less yellow. As the name suggests, these onions taste sweeter (since they have less sulfur), which make them great for caramelizing or onion rings. You may also know them as Vidalia onions. They’re also so sweet, they won’t make you cry! (But really it’s the lack of sulfur that makes you not cry!)
They’re white! White onions are a happy medium between yellow and sweet onions, with a more mild and slightly sweet flavor. These are great raw in salsa and guacamole.
Red onions are mostly white with a deep, pretty purple color with a dark red skin. These are sweet and tastiest on sandwiches or salads. Not to mention, they make your dish look soooo pretty! You can see the difference in color between the skin and the onion itself here – notice how red the skin looks when it’s not on the bulb?
A small onion with brown papery skin, the shallot is like if a yellow onion and garlic had an amazing baby. It’s even sort of shaped like a little swaddled baby, as they’re more a bit more elongated than spherical. Beneath the brown skin is a purplish-white onion that is quite pungent and gives a dish a powerful and delicious flavor. Their layers are thin, which makes them great for mincing!
Also called scallions (totally straight at the bottom) or spring onions (starting to bulb at the bottom), green onions don’t look anything like the other onions. That’s because they’re the stalks of onions and a bulb hasn’t formed yet! They look almost like a thick grass, with several green chutes rising up from a white bottom (connected by that furry brown root). The green part of the onion is best chopped up and used as a garnish, but I’ve seen the whole chute sautéed and served as a side dish.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include leeks here or give them their own focus…but the last time I worked with leeks was kind of a nightmare, so I’ll just touch on them briefly.
Leeks are like green onions on steroids. They’re super thick and have long stalks, and look like just…green onions all grown up! They have the same mild flavor as green onions, but make a great addition to soups or roasted veggies. If you slice them, you’ll get multiple rings within one another than you can pop out and have a bunch of fun little circles to eat.
My problem with them? When I get them from the store, they are still SO covered in sand and dirt. I bag them up and take them home to wash them, but they’re so huge it’s a pain! And even after washing and double washing and triple washing, sand is not an easy thing to get rid of. Just when you think all is well and you’re eating your delicious soup – crunch! – sand. If I ever find leeks that aren’t inviting a whole beach into my kitchen, I will absolutely buy them, because they are seriously amazing and delicious…But the cleanup just isn’t worth it in my opinion.
Onions aren’t super chock full of nutrients, but they are low in calories and provide a good variety of vitamins and minerals!
An onions secret weapon? It’s phytochemicals. The chemicals that give onions their color help to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. Neat!
Purchasing and Storing Onions
Onions should feel heavy and solid (not squishy) when you’re picking them out at the grocery store. Check for blemishes and bruises. Onions won’t be the prettiest on the outside, with their peeling papery skin, but as long as they’re not weeping or blemished, they should be fine on the inside!
Onions should be stored in a cool, dry place – like your pantry! Make sure they’re in an open container like a basket that allows for air movement. My pantry isn’t big enough to hold my onions, so I keep them in a basket on my counter. It’s not ideal, but it works just fine.
The exception to this are green onions. You’ll want to store these in the fridge, upright with the roots in water if possible. Green onions will go bad faster than bulb onions, but they’re also sold by the boatload. You’ll see green onions start to wilt and eventually be skinny, limp, and wrinkly. Toss ’em at that point.
After being cut, all onions should be stored in the fridge in an airtight container. I usually just use a plastic bag for diced or sliced onion, or wrap the whole remaining bulb in plastic wrap.
Using Onions in the Kitchen
Some onions can be eaten raw, but all of them can be cooked. The flavor changes when they’re cooked, and it makes them totally delicious. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve only just started to cook, with just onions sautéing in a pan, and Shane walks in and tells me how good it smells.
“It’s just onions!” I say.
“Still, though,” he replies with his nose dangerously close to the pan.
I like to sauté most of my veggies, but onions can also be roasted, deep fried (onion rings, anyone?), and grilled. They take on a sweeter flavor when cooked, and can be used as part of a veggie side dish, in a soup or chili, and as a flavor enhancer for meats. Most sautéed dishes I do at home start with garlic and onion, whether it’s the main course or a side dish!
I also mentioned onions can be eaten raw! Red onions are totally the best for this – I wouldn’t dare take a bite out of a yellow or white onion, personally. Scallions (green onions) can be cooked and served as a side, but I prefer to chop them and use them as a garnish on Asian dishes or chili. Diced or minced red onion can do the same thing, or it can be used in guacamole, salsa, and tacos. Slice a red onion and it’s perfect for salads or sandwiches.
How to Avoid Crying when Cutting Onions
Maybe you’re like I was and have been avoiding using onions because they make you cry. Let me tell you, I still mess up sometimes and end up with tears streaming down my face, running to my porch for fresh air. We’ve made our whole apartment unlivable for a good 15 minutes because of the stupid things! The good news is, there’s a fix to that.
What makes you cry is a sulfuric compound that is released when the onion is cut. This compound is concentrated at the root end of the onion, so cut that part off last. Cooling the onions by refrigerating for about thirty minutes before cutting will help to reduce your tears!
Hungry for More?
Learn even more about onions and snag some great recipes over at The National Onion Association’s website!
Are you a big fan of onions? I’ll be honest – my gateway food into loving onions was a huuuuuge sausage with peppers and onions at the local county fair. Totally not healthy, but damn was it healthy – and now look at me! Onion crazy. 🙂
Bonus: Momo wanted to play with onions.