For a chef, onions are right up there with salt on the essential ingredient scale. With their pungent flavor and nose-tingling aroma, onions form the foundation in so many dishes all around the world.
Onions have been around for some 5,000 years. Ancient Egyptians worshipped the bulb, believing it’s round shape and rings represented eternity. In Greece, athletes ate them by the chariot-load to balance the blood and Roman Gladiators took sponge baths of onion juice to firm up their muscles. Turns out they weren’t far off. Onions have been found in studies to boost our bone density and cardiovascular system and even protect you against some kinds of cancer. Not bad for a pantry staple.
Onions are part of the Allium family that includes chives, leeks, garlic and scallions. While there are tons of varieties of onions, they all fit into two basic categories: green or dry.
Green onions are harvested when the tops are still green and before a large bulb has been formed. While now available all year round, green onions were once just seedlings that were picked in the spring in order to thin out the onion fields. Both the green and white parts can be eaten as they have a mild flavor that works beautiful in salads or as finishing touch on cooked dishes.
Dry onions are mature onions with a juicy flesh and paper-like skin that’s red, brown, yellow or white in color. Dry onions come in a variety of different shapes, sizes, and most importantly, flavors. Choosing the best one for your dish largely depends on how prominent you want the onion-essence to be. In spring and summer, dry onions will have a lighter color and thinner skin and tend to be juicier, sweeter and milder. The same varieties in fall and winter will develop a thicker, darker skin and take on a more robust flavor. The cool-weather onions have less water, which actually means they keep longer.
When choosing dry onions, look for bulbs that are heavy for their size with dry papery skins. Avoid any with moistness or soft spots, which can indicate the onion has started to rot. Store in a cool, dry place. They can last up to 2 months. Cut onions should be wrapped well and kept in the fridge. Use within 4 days.
The most common onion in the US, Spanish onions are large and round with a thin brown skin. The flesh is yellow or white with a mild and tender flesh that browns beautifully when sautéed.
Red (or Italian) onions
Easy to spot by their almost purplish red skin, red onions are mild and slightly sweet with a strikingly colored flesh that looks gorgeous in salads.
Available with yellow, white or red skins, globe onions are heavy-hitters. With a flavor ranging from pungent to straight-out strong, use these onions in recipes that show off the bulb’s flavor, such as French onion soup. Like Spanish onions, the light colored varieties brown nicely when cooked.
Used widely in Latin American cooking, the pale and thin-skinned white onions are large in size with a mildly tangy flavor.
These tiny white onions are roughly the size of a marble and have a sweet, delicate flavor. They’re beautiful creamed, roasted or glazed with a little balsamic vinegar. You’ll often see these types pickled and served as a condiment or garnish on cocktails.
Even people who don’t usually like onions often like Vidalia onions. Like other sweet onions, such as Bermuda, Walla Walla and Maui onions, Vidalia are super sweet and juicy. They pair amazingly with pungent blue cheeses and balance spice rubbed meats beautifully.
Celebrate onions with a satisfying Classic French Onion Soup.