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The Overlooked Onion

The Overlooked Onion

If you’re looking for ways to enliven your cooking this spring, consider the overlooked onion. This vegetable, commonly thought of simply as a flavoring ingredient, is a staple in many cuisines of the world and a critical component for many classic dishes like Classic Quiche Lorraine. Take advantage of the seasonal availability of this delicious vegetable when you are planning your family meals.

Onions have been around a long time. They’re believed to have been cultivated for almost 7,000 years, likely first in Egypt or Central Asia based on archaeological evidence, and then traveled with traders to Europe, Africa and beyond. And while Native Americans were already using wild onions in a variety of ways, when the first European settlers came to North America, one of the first crops they planted was onions.

Varieties of Onions

More than 500 varieties of onions exist today. Since they can easily be crossbred, new varieties and hybrids continue to arrive on the market.  We’ll focus on onions which generally fall into three major categories:

1. Green or spring onions

Also called scallions, green or spring onions are available year-round but are at their best in the springtime. Mexican BBQ onions are making increasingly frequent appearances at farmer’s markets – they look like green onions with bigger bulbs and thicker stalks. Both of these require refrigeration. Spring onions should have bright green stalks. Unwashed green onions can be kept dry in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to 7 days.

2. Storage or winter onions

Storage or winter onions are those that can be stored for long periods of time at room temperature. These include gold (or yellow), red and white onions, cipolla and cipolline onions (large and small flat-style Italian onions), and boiler and pearl onions (both of those names refer to the size of the onion). These are readily available year-round, but if you’re buying locally-grown produce, the season is usually late summer to early fall. If well-dried, they can be stored for up to 2 months. The bulbs should be firm, without soft spots, but with a tightly closed “neck.” Avoid onions that have begun to sprout. To store, place dry, unwashed storage onions in a loose container (not a plastic bag) in cool dark location.

3. Sweet onions

The third major category includes sweet onions. Names you’ll recognize in the United States include Maui, Texas Sweets, Vidalia and Walla Walla. These onions are perceived to be sweeter than storage onions, but they don’t contain higher sugar content. They have lower acidity so they are simply lacking the pungency and “heat” of storage onions. Some are available year-round but most have a shorter window of availability and are eagerly awaited by fans of the “big sweets.” Here is the availability of some popular sweet onions:

• Maui, from Hawaii – Available year-round.

• Texas Supersweet, Springsweet and 1015, all from Texas – Available from March through July.

• Vidalia, from Georgia – Available from April through June.

• Walla Walla, from Washington – Available from June through August.

• Sweet Imperial and Coachella Sweet, from California – Available from April through September.

• Mayan Sweet, a variety cultivated for export in Peru, Nicaragua and Guatemala – Available from September through April.

Sweet onion bulbs should be firm and blemish-free with dry, thin skins. They have a shorter shelf life than storage onions but longer than green onions. Sweet onions can be stored in a loose container and kept dry in a cool dark location for up to 2 weeks. Or keep them dry and refrigerated for up to 1 month.

Onion Lover or Hater?

There are onion lovers and onion haters in the world, and it’s likely that the onion haters once had a bad experience with the more pungent or “hotter” storage onions. Storage onions also contain more of the sulfuric compounds that are released into the air as a gas when onions are cut into. When the gas reaches the eyes and nasal passages it creates a minor irritation that makes some people tear up and “cry”. There are lots of suggested remedies for avoiding the tears from wearing onion goggles, to cutting onions near burning candles to washing onions under cold water. Refrigerating the onions before chopping them and leaving the root end intact as long as possible is also helpful.

With more of a background on onion varieties, here are some recipes that feature some of them:

Green onions are almost an essential ingredient in salsa recipes, but they can also star in bright springtime salads like Spring Slaw or Garlic Chicken Strawberry Salad.

The flavor of storage onions can be very sharp when raw, but becomes more mellow and aromatic when cooked . Storage onions also caramelize beautifully. For brunch, try Caramelized Onion Scones. Or with grilling season on the way, try our Grilled Caramelized Onion Burgers.

With their milder flavor, sweet onions can be eaten raw or cooked, and they play well with other ingredients in dishes like this main dish salad, Sweet Onion Pasta Salad.

You’ll become an onion-loving family once you begin exploring how to use different onion varieties in your cooking!

This article was written by LoAnn M., consultant in the Land O’Lakes Test Kitchen.

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