All About Onions and 7 Ways to Make a Meal of Them

September  6, 2014

Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.

Today: Onions are powerful -- their versatility, their flavor, their ability to make you weep on command...


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Onions are members of the allium family (along with scallions, leeks, and ramps). There are many varieties of onions, but with a few exceptions, we rarely call them by name. Instead, we distinguish between them by feature: color (red, white, or yellow), flavor (sweet onions), or size (baby or pearl onions). 

Storage onions
Onions referred to by color (white, yellow, and red onions) tend to be storage onions, and white and yellow Spanish onions are lumped in this group as well. These onions are generally harvested in the fall (although they can be harvested at other times as well). First, the roots are undercut while the onions are still in the field -- often the greens are removed at this time, too -- and then the bulbs are left there to dry for a week or so before they’re harvested and cured. The curing process helps extend their shelf life and sets their dry, papery skins. As their name suggests, these onions store well after they’ve been cured. 

Sweet onions

These are the exception to the rule: Sweet onions are the ones that are often referred to by name, like Vidalia and Walla Walla. They're milder, though not necessarily sweeter, than storage onions, and unlike their white, yellow, and red cousins, sweet onions are only available seasonally. Depending on the variety, in the U.S., sweet onions are available starting in the spring and well into the summer. That means that if you’re picking up sweet onions in the supermarket in the winter, they’re coming from another country. 

More: Put your sweet onions to good use in French Onion Soup with Coffee. Coffee is not a typo.

Small onions
Little onions are referred to by a number of different names, and they can be categorized by size into picklers, pearls, creamers, and boilers. But oftentimes any type of small onion is referred to as a pearl or baby onion: As Russ Parsons says, sometimes it comes down to the "whims of marketers." The diminutive size of these onions is due to tight growing quarters and early harvesting.

Cipollini (or cipolline) onions, on the other hand, are legitimately small onions (their name means “little onions” in Italian).They are generally between 1 and 3 inches in diameter. Rather than being round in shape, these onions are flattened, as if someone accidentally stepped on them while they were growing. Like other small onions, they’re most often used whole to highlight their size and shape, but they can be challenging to peel. Either quickly blanch them, cut the tiniest sliver off of the root end, and then peel back the outer skin, or use Eugenia Bone’s technique and simply crack the skins by squeezing an onion in your hand, and then peel.

Small Onions

How to store onions and salvage less-than-perfect-ones
With all onions, you want them to be firm. Steer clear of specimens with soft spots or cuts. Store them in a cool (and ideally dark) spot with good airflow, and keep them separated from potatoes. Sweet onions have an especially short shelf life, so use them quickly or keep them in the refrigerator. Or, follow the lead of Sam1148’s grandmother and store them in panty hose, tying a knot between each onion and then snipping one off as needed. Once cut, leftover onions should be wrapped in plastic and stored in the refrigerator, far away from any foods you wouldn’t appreciate picking up an added onion flavor.

After a fair amount of time hanging out in your kitchen, your onions will start to send out green shoots. We’re not fussy about the little green shoots that sprout in garlic, and we feel the same way about them in onions. Turns out Deborah Madison is with us, saying: "You can use those greens when you want some green onion in a dish and have none around." (If you disagree, just flick them out of the onion and carry on chopping.) She's also not put off by the dusty black spots you sometimes see under the skin: "Peel the damaged skins, rinse off the mold, and use what’s left."

More: Read what Deborah Madison has to say about stocking your kitchen with the most essential tools.

Cut Onions

How to Use
Onions are the starting point of many good things (okay, perhaps not ice cream…although maybe?), but to really make onions the star of a meal, try caramelizing them. You’ll find yourself adding them to dips, scattering them over side dishes, and even planning a week’s worth of meals around them.

Here are 7 of our favorite ways to make a meal out of caramelized onions:

And it's worth noting that although different kinds of onions have unique characteristics, and certain types do tend to be used for specific applications, in a pinch, you can swap in whatever onion you have on hand. 

Tell us: How do you like to use onions?

Photos by James Ransom 

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abc March 26, 2018
Love red onions and shallots. Yellow onions are too watery for my taste. Sometimes I use white onions for grilling.
My fav onion recipe is this vegan fried rice where I fry lots of red onions and green chilies in olive oil, till they caramelize and then add salt, chickpeas, and old cooked rice.
Chrissy D. March 24, 2015
Actually, if you do it right, even some sweet onions can have a lengthy shelf life. My family grows Candy onions (similar to Vidalia), and so long as you keep them in the right conditions they will last for 9 months or more.
jang S. January 26, 2015
onions have great medicinal value but you have not touched it pl confirm eloborate
Leeannminton January 19, 2015
I really enjoy what you are doing here with your blog, I've recently started a blog of my own https://leeannminton.wordpress.com/ where I am trying to help the Novice Cook to become a Home Cook. Its still in the baby stages of development, but after seeing what you have done with yours I look forward to the future of my own. I'll definitely be back here often to check out what it is your hashing out.
Maria December 25, 2014
I love all color onions, and I do not have a problem adding then in my food raw. It's like putting a few spicy in you food, except a little more flavored it
Adele R. December 14, 2014
A sandwich: Six or Seven grained Bread. like Miltons, best as far as I am concerned. Smear a small amount of Mayo over one side of each side. Sprinkle celery salt, black pepper and some dill on the Mayo.
Half inch slice of that wonderful red onion.
Don't knock it until you have tried it!
Michelle S. December 6, 2014
To keep the sting and watery eyes away u can put a match in your mouth or cut w ur mouth open
Edis T. November 25, 2014
Love those red ones just chopped into the salad of fresh tomatoes.
MsLindaW55 November 1, 2014
I absolutely LOVE onions! I add them to practically every dish..cooked and raw!
Ntolatol October 30, 2014
Like this article about onions change my view about onion
ugocrazy September 10, 2014
I recently made these with a small batch of small onions :
Its got this vinegary yet sweet and somewhat tangy flavor. Love it :)
jane.coombs88 September 9, 2014
I have a recipe for Onions Carbonara, that I want to make.
Michael K. September 8, 2014
I've heard that chewing gum while cutting onions will prevent the tears but I haven't gotten around to trying it yet. Have you?
wkfld September 8, 2014
Use carmelized onions w sautéed crispy kale, cherry peppers , a splash of rice vinegar and a sprinkle of feta as your base for a 10 egg frittata. I make every Sunday and cut wedges for breakfast every morning. DELICIOUS!
kimikoftokyo September 7, 2014
Love this!! I love onions a bit too much and coffee I seriously need to read that soup and onion link.
Cheryl N. September 7, 2014
Great intro for the novice and a wonderful reminder for those of us who tend to forget things. :)
Mindful A. September 6, 2014
Wow, this is such an informative post. I am definitely going to use caramelized onion in those dishes, can't wait!

Pegeen September 6, 2014
Great article, esp. with autumn coming up. Thanks.