Ingredient Profile: The Onion

Believe it or not, I actually hate onions in my food. Whenever I detect the sharp and pungent flavor of an onion in my meal, I cringe to myself a little and slowly pick through my food, trying to avoid the onions at all costs. So why am I writing an article about them? Well as it turns out, I’m alone in my opinion on onions…and the rest of you Americans and world-class citizens love the bulby oddities. So who am I to deny you an onion education -we wouldn’t want you crying over an onion, would we? Oh but you already have.

So here’s my guide to the onion. I hope you find it helpful as we’ll go through some of its history, some interesting facts, and of course – the best of the best onion recipes.

The National Onion Association classifies onions into two categories: spring/summer fresh onions and the fall/winter storage variety. These fresher onions are available April through August while the dryer storage onions turn up more often August through April. Both come in red, white and yellow forms, but the spring/summer onions are said to be sweeter, moister, and milder. Therefore used in sweeter dishes, the fall/winter kind is used for savory dishes.

The most common onion is the yellow onion. Not only is most of American onion production (for more information on domestic onion production, click here) focused on yellow onions, but their full flavor is suitable for a wide range of cooking, most notable French Onion Soup. Red onions are used more often in salads, and other fresh uses, or for grilling or broiling, according to the National Onion Association. White onions show up quite a bit in Mexican cuisine and have a sweet flavor when sauteed. Others argue All of these varieties range in size – from 1 inch to 4.5 inches in diameter. For a more specific guide to the different varieties of onions including vidalia, walla walla, and Texas, click here.

“Onions should be firm and heavy for their size. Avoid onions that have sprouted or that have an odor, or that have green or moldy blemishes,” says Cooks Thesaurus, who offers up some helpful advice on purchasing and cooking onions.

Another way to classify an onion is by its type: bulb, multiplier (a derivation of the bulb onion) or tree onions. The most common form is bulb, which includes the sweet onions like vidalia, and all the colored varieties we’ve just discussed. But if you noticed,

The top onion producer in 2005, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, was China, followed by India, who was followed by the United States. The third top onion producer, Americans harvested 3.3 million tons of onions in 2005.

Celebrating the Onion
Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Festival

Why do onions make us cry?

You’ve probably noticed that when you cut up a raw onion, your eyes start to tear. A common problem for every onion chopper, this happens because of the enzymes in an onion. Since the onion is being chopped, the cells are being broken – allowing the enzymes to be released. The enzymes in an onion are called allianases and they react to the sulfides in the onion-chopping environment to create a sulfuric acid gas. This gas is immediately composed and released into the air, therefore reaching your eyes. Our eyes’ nerve endings are irritated by sulfuric acid, therefore inducing uncontrollable “crying.”

Cooks Thesaurus recommends chilling onions first to avoid tearing. “If you’re prone to crying while cutting onions, try chilling them first, then peeling them under running water. Always cook onions over low or medium heat, since they become bitter at high temperatures.”

Onion Recipes Worth Crying Over

Onions turn up in all sorts of dishes, from appetizers and soups even to desserts. They are one of the most widely used ingredient, not just across dishes but across cultural cuisine. Here are some recipes worth trying out:

Recipes that focus on onions:

Tandoori Onion Salad
Onions Au Gratin
Caramelized Red Bell Peppers and Onions
French Onion Soup
Brown-Braised Onions
Baked Onions
Onion Tart (Pissaladiere)
Onion Bhajis
Indian Pickled Onions
Tomato and Onion Salad with Tahini Dressing
Onion Rings

Recipes that use onion as a supplement:

Onion Meatball Supper
Braised Artichokes with Little Onions and Bacon
Grilled Sirloin and Red Onions with Blue Cheese Butter
Onion Chicken Breasts
Cranberry Onion Pork Roast
Grilled Bratwurst and Onion Sandwiches
Onion-Beef Fettucine
Corn and Onion Casserole


National Onion Association
Cooks Thesaurus
UN Food and Agriculture Organization

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