"...over 450 semi-truck loads of onions are consumed in the United States each day!"
shopping from the usual list of items in my local supermarket the other
day, I was struck by the diversity of colors, shapes, sizes and flavors
available in one of the most “usual” of fresh produce basics – the
onion. The quilt-like retail display was a patchwork of variety in
various shades of white, red, yellow, brown, and golden; globe-shaped,
oblong, flat, large, small, smaller, and tiny; pungent, sweet and
admit that only someone in the business of fresh produce would stop to
admire a collection of onion varieties. In fact, the consistency of
supply that the produce industry provides year-round in this staple crop
very much contributes to this bounty being taken for granted. After
all, when was the last time your local grocer ran out of any kind of
onion on your shopping list?
standing in front of that wide selection of the most common of
vegetables on the planet, it occurred to me that I knew very little
about the onion even with a long career in the industry. In the research
to correct this gap in my own produce education, I came across some
interesting onion facts and history worth sharing.
we have been taking the onion for granted for a very long time;
certainly before farming or the written word was invented. It is very
likely that the wild onion was a staple on the typical prehistoric
shopping list too, though the plant’s delicate tissues left no trace for
science to actually date how far back the plant has been growing wild.
The fact is that onions of one type or another have been around longer
than man can remember. For our historical foodie readers, here is a
quick synopsis of what we do know:
were first mentioned by the Egyptians in 3500 B.C. as an object of
worship. It’s circle-within-a-circle structure symbolized eternity to
this ancient culture. Onions have been found consistently in the ears
and eye sockets of mummies, as this vegetable was thought to be a good
thing to have along in the afterlife.
- In King Arthur’s
day, onions were prescribed to alleviate headaches, snakebites and hair
loss. Onions were so highly valued that they were also accepted as rent
payment and considered the perfect wedding gift! This explains why those
times are often referred to as “the good old days”!
Pilgrim “duh” moment: In 1648, the Pilgrims record clearing land and
planting the onion seeds that they had brought with them as Priority One
upon arriving in the new land. They were very proud of this first
accomplishment; that is, until their Indian neighbors pointed out the
abundance of wild onions growing in the area.
American Indian had been using onions in their cooking and medicines
for centuries before the Pilgrims landed. The name Chicago is derived
from a Native American word that referred to the odor produced from a
vast amount of onions growing along the stretch between what is now
Chicago and Green Bay.
- The U.S. per capita
consumption of onions is about 20 pounds per year. This translates to
over 450 semi-truck loads of onions which are consumed in the United
States each day!
came across one interesting myth about leftover peeled onions being
poisonous that can be traced back to Medieval times and is still being
asked about on the Internet. This old wives’ tale stems from a 15th
Century practice of surrounding a house with raw onions to protect its
residents from bubonic plague. The belief being that a peeled onion was a
natural attractant to infectious bacteria, so it would absorb the
dreaded plague. In truth, cut onions contain enzymes that produce
sulphuric acid, which actually inhibits the growth of germs. Of course,
any fresh produce item can be contaminated from improper handling;
however, the onion is not inherently more susceptible to bacteria.
Nevertheless, a good rumor is hard to squelch, even 500 years of
scientific knowledge later.
cooks might be a little overwhelmed by the array of dry onion choices in
today’s marketplace. The following guide will help to match the right
onion with the right recipe:
- Yellow Onions are
the most common, all-purpose variety in the marketplace. They have a
good balance of astringency and sweetness in their flavor. This variety
becomes sweeter the longer it is cooked, making it the perfect
ingredient for soups, stews and any recipe calling for a long simmer.
- Red Onions are
very mild in flavor and most often served raw in salads, salsas or
other dishes where a splash of color is desired. This variety is not
suited for cooking as the red color and mild flavor become washed out
during the process.
- White Onions are sharper and more
pungent than yellow onions. They are the variety of choice in Mexican
cuisine and are preferred by onion processors. While they can be cooked
like yellow onions, their taste characteristics are best appreciated
minced raw in salsas, chutneys or as a condiment.
- Perfect Sweet Onions have
less sulfur content than other varieties so they can taste very sweet,
indeed. Try this onion raw, thinly sliced and served in a salad or atop a
burger! Because of the higher sugar content they tend to be more
perishable and should be stored in the refrigerator. Also because of
this sugar content, they caramelize very quickly!
- Pearl Onions have
a very mild, sweet flavor. Their small size makes them perfect for
pickling, roasting whole or as the main ingredient in sweet relishes.
- Shallots have
a unique flavor that is difficult to describe -- onion-garlic with a
hint of apple. Synonymous with French cooking, its delicate taste
complements sauces, braised meats and vegetable sautés.
- Cipolline Onions are
a very petite, flat Italian variety whose size and sweet flavor make
them perfect for roasting whole or caramelizing. Sweeter than a regular
onion, but not quite as sweet as a shallot. Also spelled Cipollini or
- Torpedo Onions are
an Italian heirloom variety with a balanced, mild flavor that is sweet
with a pungent, sharp aftertaste. Because of the variety’s attractive
red color at its edges when sliced, it is great raw in salads and is
- Maui Onions are
known for their intensive sweet, distinctive flavor. Use this onion in
salads or as a flavoring in soups, stews or casseroles.
Onion Tears 101:
When an onion is sliced through, the knife edge crushes a number of
onion cells. Enzymes in those crushed cells form a gas that is lighter
than air so it rises from the cutting board. When this gas reaches the
eyes, it reacts with the water that keeps them moist, forming a mild
sulfuric acid that irritates the eyeball. The brain reacts to this
irritation by telling the tear ducts to produce more water to dilute and
wash out the acid. While the science of tears is pretty
straightforward, the number of solutions to circumvent this experience
outnumbers the tears themselves!
No-Tear Onions 102:
Take your pick from soaking the onion in cold water or chilling it in a
freezer, actually slicing it underwater, lighting a candle right next
to the cutting board, plugging the nose, or chewing gumor what I would
call the Snow White method—whistling continuously while slicing! A quick
web search will produce hundreds more, though such a search would be a
symptom of having achieved the pinnacle of extreme boredom! Personally,
I use a very sharp knife and just try to get the job done as quickly as
possible. Besides, what’s wrong with shedding a few tears over the
preparation of a meal? Plus a good culinary cry in the privacy of one’s
own kitchen can be quite cathartic!
steady cooking will bring out the natural sugars of even the most
pungent of onion varieties, though these sugars can be summed much
quicker by sautéing chopped onions in oil or butter; the heat causes the
sugars to caramelize, turning onions an attractive golden brown.
Caramelized onions are tasty sweet! Use them to complement roasted
meats; serve with soft cheese on crackers; or as a delicious dollop of
garnish in soups. Caramelized onions freeze wonderfully; I keep a large
plastic bag of them on hand in my freezer and just break off chunks as
While I do not expect
that this article will cause traffic jams of admiring shoppers in front
of onion retail displays, it is hoped that the information shared will
add a new found appreciation and value for one of the most mundane
staples in the produce department. Still, don’t try to pay your mortgage
or rent with a sack of them!