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March, 2013

March, 2013

Blanket of Onions
"...over 450 semi-truck loads of onions are consumed in the United States each day!"

While 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 sweeter choices.

O.K., I 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?

Anyway, 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.

Firstly, 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:

  • Onions 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”!
  • Early 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.
  • The 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!
I 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.
Many novice 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 Cipolin.
  • 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 often pickled.
  • 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!

Slow, 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 needed.

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!