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Onions: In one form or another, they’re in just about everything savory we eat. And when I say savory, I’m, of course, excluding pastries and sweets, although they occasionally sneak onions into those too.
I don’t think the same can be said for any other vegetable–not even carrots, celery or potatoes. This is because onions, much like garlic, are used as much for seasoning as for their vegetable appeal.
And because of that, they’re hard to escape–not that escaping is on my mind. I happen to like onions (except when I need to peel a great deal of them), but there are those who find onions a bit too ubiquitous.
I’d say they are nothing to cry about, but that really doesn’t work here.
Onions have been cultivated and used in cuisines all over the globe for at least 7000 years. They’re enjoyed mainly as a vegetable and eaten both cooked and raw.
Most cultivars are quite pungent when first cut into because they contain chemical substances that irritate the eyes.
On the positive side, onions contain phenolics and flavonoids that have potential anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, anti-cancer and antioxidant properties.
When planted, onions initially grow a stalk of about 6” to 18”. Then, as the onion matures, the plant begins to redirect its energy to its base, where it swells into the round vegetable we buy at the grocery store.
Before the fall harvest, the onion’s leaves finally wither and die, and the outer scales of the bulb becomes dry and parchment-like brittle.
What About Green Onions?
While the large, mature, round onion bulb is the most commonly purchased, onions can be harvested and eaten at stages before the big bulb develops, as in the case of green onions (scallions) and the small bunch onions.
In the case of green onions, the stalk is the desired part, and its flavor is a little less oniony and a little more greens-like. Most cooks use green onions in their dishes as much for the color as for the flavor, and the same goes for red onions.
Now, while very few people eat onions for their health benefits, it’s nice to know that you’ll get that bonus whenever you enjoy a dish that has onions in it. And those benefits include everything from the suppression of bronchitis and the lowering of blood pressure to the prevention of cardiovascular diseases.
Among onions, I certainly have my favorites, but perhaps not one favorite. Rather, I choose different onions for different uses, depending on just how much I want my onions to play a role in that dish, from color to general appearance to taste.
Having said this, onion’s pungency also varies within a range of strength. For the purposes of my notes (below), I’ll presume YOUR onions will reside somewhere in the middle of the normal flavor profile.
Here is my personal choice list:
Of all the most common onion types, Spanish and yellow cooking onions have the most sting (my word for pungency). I used to use them for just about everything, but nowadays I mainly use them in chili and Mexican dishes, and I blend them half and half in soups with sweet onions. Of the larger onions, they have the most onion flavor, even in French Onion soup. I NEVER use these onions for salads.
Yellow Cooking Onions
I pretty much use them just like the Spanish Onions, but as they’re smaller and more of a pain to peel, I don’t use them as often as I used to. When I see smaller cooking onions, I’ll occasionally cut them in half and roast them as a vegetable.
White onions fall somewhere between Spanish and sweet onions in both sting (pungency) and sweetness, and as such, they’re a general-purpose onion in my cooking repertoire. But in all honesty, Spanish onions do a better job in one direction and sweet in another, so I’m more inclined to buy either of them versus white onions.
Like white onions, red onions fall halfway between a Spanish onion and a sweet onion in pungency. But unlike with the white onion, I have a greater mission for the red, and that’s color. 99 percent of the dishes I use them in are uncooked (like salads), and they benefit from their beautiful color and taste.
Sweet Onions (Vidalia, Walla Walla, Oso Sweet, Rio Sweet)
From onion rings and stir-fry dishes to casseroles and recipes where I’m not looking for onions to overpower the assemblage of other ingredients, sweet onions are a staple in my pantry. I’ll occasionally cut them into ½” slabs, lightly spray them with vegetable oil and grill them while basting with teriyaki sauce.
Pearl Onions (White, Golden, Red)
From a cooking perspective, I occasionally enjoy roasting these little guys in butter. Otherwise, I use the golden and red/purple varieties in stir-fry for visual interest. The same applies for soups and casseroles when I’ve used the big boys for the dish’s main flavor. Otherwise, their larger role is in pickling.
Everything that applies to pearl onions applies here, with the exception of the fact that Cipollini onions have a flatter, donut-like shape and are a bit sweeter.
Green Onions (Scallions)
Green onions a.k.a. scallions are most often used in green leaf salads, pasta and potato salads, dips, spreads, stir-fry dishes, casseroles and just about any Asian-inspired dish that calls for onions. The stalk closest to the root has a bit more sting than its darker-green stalk, but every bit of this popular onion is usable and enjoyed.
Bunch Onions (Knob Onions)
Most everything that applies for green onions fits here, with the understanding that because the bulb end is beginning to develop, you have more sting to work with and less green. As such, I tend to use this onion less for its color and more as I could use a white onion. It does, however, offer a somewhat fresher onion taste.
Onion Cooking Tips:
Sautéing onions briefly in hot oil will release much of their sulfur and give your onions a sweeter, milder flavor.
Peel pearl and Cipollini onions by dropping them in boiling water for 10 seconds and then immersing them in ice-cold water. The skins will easily slip off.
To caramelize your onions for soup without burning them, begin by getting your oil hot, and then add your sliced or diced onions. Sauté briefly, and then turn the heat down to medium low and stir occasionally. Once they start to lightly brown and soften, you can gradually turn up the heat to medium but only if you stir more often.
Onion Storage Tips:
Larger bulb onions, yellow cooking onions and pearl onions store best at room temperature, but ANY cut onion should be wrapped in plastic film and refrigerated away from all other produce in its own compartment in order to avoid flavor and odor transfer. The only exception to this is that sweet onions, due to their higher water content, can be just as successfully stored in the fridge as at room temperature.
Green and knob onions should be kept under refrigeration at all times. They will stay freshest if wrapped in a damp towel with a plastic bag or storage box.
Now, here’s the question I know you REALLY want answered: How can I cut onions without my eyes stinging and watering? Watch this video to see my methods in action:
There are many bits of wisdom you’ll hear, such as holding a strike match (business side out of course) between your teeth with the presumption that something in the match head will ward off the onion’s eye-stinging potency. Another one is to hold a slice of bread in your mouth (for a filtering effect).
And maybe the best might be peeling them under water (although changing into a swimsuit just seems like a lot of trouble to go through just to peel onions).
Despite the popular suggestions, I only know of two ways to prevent onions from bringing you to tears. One generally works, and the other is foolproof! Keep in mind that onion’s airborne sulfurous gas is what’s making your eyes sting.
The first method is to position yourself upwind not downwind of the ventilation in the room. Most people are at a counter where the fumes have to go directly past their heads to exit the room. Think of it like smoke. Where should you be standing to avoid getting it in your face?
The second method is the one that I have used ever since I became a chef, and it has NEVER not worked:
Have your prep cook cut them.