Onion Appeal: A Primer on Flavor & Technique

©2012 Beth Billstrom

The other day I noticed a single, small yellow onion sitting on the counter.   There it sat, peacefully wrapped in its golden-brown papery skin, balanced on its roots, small stem waving in the air.  Quietly confident, layered with flavor and fragrance, onions have a unique appeal that is often overlooked.  If there is an ingredient in our kitchen that we take for granted, it most likely is the onion.  Admit it, onion swooning rarely happens in a grocery store.  We poke and prod our tomatoes, thump the cantaloupes, and inspect our bananas to make sure they’re a perfect ratio of green to yellow.  But onions?  No, no, no.  Onions are grab and go fare.  Get them on the run.  Put them in the cart and move on, after all, we’ve got dinner to get on the table.

©2012 Beth Billstrom

Why do we do that? Probably because we just don’t know not to….I mean, until recently, other than how to store them, my onion knowledge was scant, at best.   After all, aren’t onions that dependable, yet unobtrusive flavor ingredient?  The one we reach for automatically?  The one we substitute powder for if we’re out of fresh onions or just too tired to chop one up?

Food author and chef, James Peterson, says in Splendid Soups, “While onions come in various sizes and colors, almost any onion will work in a recipe that calls for them.”   At first this sounds plausible, until you actually go to the store (or farmer’s market) and see all the different onions: chives, scallions, shallots, yellow, red, white, leeks, etc.  And that short list doesn’t take into account all the different varieties within each category.

While onions are incredibly dependable and flexible, the mild flavor and texture of a scallion is pretty different from the robust white onion.   Therefore, which onion you toss into the pot makes a difference.  In his successful book, Tender, Nigel Slater says, “Get the onion part of a dish right and you are halfway towards a good supper.  Get them wrong and no amount of cooking and clever stunts can quite put the matter to rights.”   If selecting the right onion can get me halfway to a good dinner, then slowing down and taking a better look at what I put into my cart, and dinner pot, suddenly seems more important.  In that mind frame, I appeal to your sense of good flavor and offer a small primer on onions. 

Onions at Market: Purchasing & Storing

©2012 Beth Billstrom

Say “onion” and I’ll typically conjure up an image of a yellow or white sphere, wrapped in a papery vegetative skin.  These are the typical onions (or Allium cepa if you wish to call them by their botanical name) that can be found in produce sections year-round.  Most yellow onions are harvested in fall, then stored in ventilated sheds until shipped to market.  White onions have a higher water content, therefore, may perish faster than the yellow.  But, with over 700 species of Alliums to choose from, why be limited to the basic yellow or white?  A quick tour of the produce section often reveals a variety of interesting options.

A Little Sweetness….If you’re looking for something a bit larger, but sweeter than the typical yellow onion, you might try the oversize Spanish onion.  Or, in spring and summer, treat yourself to some of the sweetest onions such as the Vidalia, (Georgia),  Maui (Hawaii), Walla-Walla (Washington), or the Nu-Mex (New Mexico).  If you’d like a little color in your dish, than a red onion, formally known as the Bermuda onion, may be to your liking.  All of these onions are also Aliium cepas or bulb onions., but they’ll sweeten your dish by kicking up the flavor just a bit.

No matter which type of bulb onion you buy, ensure each onion is firm to the touch.  This is easier to do if you purchase onions singly rather than in a bag.  Pick each onion up, take a look and then squish it.  Onions that are soft and mushy are victims of internal rotting generally caused by age, mishandling during transport, or bugs.  Also, steer away from onions with a peculiar odor or sprouts.  They’re not fresh.  Why put something old and musty in dish you’ve worked hard to prepare?

Continue to keep the flavor bar high by storing your bulb onion(s) in a cool, dark, dry place.  A humid environment promotes rotting and warmth will cause onions to sprout.  If you have a wooden container, all the better.  You can also be like Nigel Slater and store your bulb onions in a pair of panty hose hanging from the ceiling.  I’m not sure if this really works, but I’m sure it starts some great conversations!  However you store them, keep in mind that yellow onions will stay fresh the longest, 6-8 months.  The sweeter the onion, the faster it will dry out.  Plan to use the sweet ones up more quickly so they don’t spoil.

Shallot ©2012 Beth Billstrom

A Special Occasion….But let’s say that you’re looking for something that isn’t a bulb onion, something a bit milder for a special dish you’re creating.  The Allium ascalonicum, or shallot is a great choice.  These onions come in 3 sizes: small, medium and large.  A shallot has two lobes that grow side-by-side wrapped in a protective vegetative sheath.  They, too, should be stored in a dark, dry place.

A Soup or Salad….If you’re serving soup or salad, then you do want an onion with green sprouts or stems still on.  Head over to the cold, misting section of the produce area and look for the scallions, Allium fistulosum, or green onions.  You can also go to the fresh herb aisle for chives, Allium schoenoprasum.   If used when fresh, the slender, cylindrical mild leaves will brighten your dish.   You might also want to try garlic chives, Allim tubersum, for a stronger more garlicky flavor.   Once purchased, wrap your scallions and chives in plastic and store in the refrigerator.

I hope your next trip to the market involves a slower, more insightful journey through the onion section.  If so, you’ll be one step closer to a more flavorful meal.  Next week, just in time for Thanksgiving, I’ll be back with a few good tips on how to slice, dice and chop onions as well as notes on which onion I use in my favorite stuffing recipe.

See you then,


More Than Oregano

Enjoying food, gardening & the spice of life

4 responses to “Onion Appeal: A Primer on Flavor & Technique

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