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October, 2010

There Is Nothing Dry about the Dry Onion

By Dennis Linden

The fall season brings to the marketplace several varieties of one of the most common fresh cooking ingredient in the world, the onion.

Actually, when I began the research for this article, many sources referred to this staple pantry item using the same descriptive phrase, the lowly onion. However, my due diligence of this common crop turned up some very interesting facts that definitely refute this “lowly” status.

Though onions are probably one of the oldest foods on the planet, their small size and delicate tissues have made it impossible for science to trace their history with archeological tools, since the vegetable leaves no telltale residue from the time before the first written language. However, it is very likely that early man started eating wild onions long before the written word or farming practices were developed. The plant must have been considered so commonplace, even in prehistoric times, that none of our cave-dwelling ancestors were apparently inspired enough to doodle the simplest of wall drawings depicting this food.

Still, it is assumed that onions must have been one of the earliest cultivated crops, because they are far less perishable than other fresh foods, travel well and grow easily in a variety of environments, as evidenced by the fact that onions are found on every continent and in most all cuisines around the globe except the Polar Regions. Another value-added characteristic for ancient cultures was that they could be dried for later consumption when food was scarce, and their 90% water content could even possibly sustain life, if the need arose.

The Egyptians were the first to elevate the vegetable to an object of worship. They saw eternal life symbolized in its circle-within-a-circle structure. In fact, the onion finally found a place on the walls of the tombs of pharaohs, usually being raised high in seeming adoration by a priest. Ancient Egypt also provides the first physical evidence of the plant’s existence, as remnants of onion bulbs have been found placed over the eyes and in the stomach cavities of deceased pharaohs to both guide and sustain these royals for eternity in the afterlife.

Perfect Sweet Onions
By the Middle Ages, the value of onions had increased to the point of being used for rent payments and wedding gifts, according to historical accounting records, though I’m not sure that even the most ornately gift-wrapped extra-large Perfect Sweet Onion would go over very well today, under any circumstances! Seriously, the three main vegetables of European cuisine at the time of Charlemagne were beans, cabbage and onions. Onions were also touted as a cure for headaches, hair loss and snake bite as well as an aphrodisiac aiding both impotency and fertility. Though not enforced, there is still a law on the books in Texas today prohibiting “young women” from consuming raw onions after 6 p.m. It’s ironic that one of this state’s primary commercial crops has a curfew!

The first Pilgrims brought onions with them on the Mayflower only to discover wild onions already growing throughout North America. Native American Indians had been using them for centuries as a seasoning and standalone vegetable, as well as using their skins as a key ingredient in making dyes. Here’s a great Jeopardy answer: the word Chicago originated from the Native American word Shikako meaning skunk place -- a reference to the abundance of wild onions (and odor) that grew along Lake Michigan in the corridor between modern Chicago and Green Bay, Wisconsin.

So what’s the scoop on why people get so emotional when cutting an onion? In the simplest of terms, the cells within the tissue of the onion have two sections; one contains an enzyme called allianase and the other containing a chemical called sulphide. When the onion is sliced, these cells break and react with each other, creating a gaseous vapor. This vapor gradually moves through the air and when it reaches the eye it reacts with the water on the eye to form a mild sulphuric acid solution. This solution naturally irritates the nerve endings in the eye, stimulating the tear ducts to wash it away. There is a plethora of remedies for onion tears on the Internet. The three that make the most sense are: wearing goggles, cutting onions out of doors or close to a fan that will move the vapors downwind, and chilling the onion in the refrigerator or freezer for a short time to slow down the enzymes before slicing.

The other universal experience with onions is the infamous collateral damage of onion breath. Another internet search produced a few consistent favorite solutions of both science and food blogs: munch on a few sprigs of fresh mint or parsley, drink green tea or immediately brush one’s teeth, if that is practical.
Red Onions
The most common varieties of dry onions found in the marketplace are hand-sized, globe-shaped, and white, yellow or red in color. As a general rule, white onions have the strongest and most pungent flavor; the exceptions being both the small white boiler and the tinier white pearl onion (also in red or yellow), which are mild and slightly sweet. Yellow onion varieties are milder tasting with a hint of sweetness and the red onion is the mildest and sweetest of these three colors generally. Shallots are the size of a head of garlic and a particularly tasty variety that has achieved an important culinary position in classic French cuisine. A reduction of finely chopped shallots and dry white wine is the foundation for many French sauces. Be aware that shallots from France, the Netherlands and our own domestic crops are much more flavorful than the impressively large, but very bland, variety grown in Chile. Another small dry onion is the Cipolline (chip-ohh-lee-nee). Cipolline onions are flat -shaped, white onions with a taste somewhat less sweet than a shallot. Sweet onions are another sub-category used extensively in cooking. These have extremely high sugar content, which make them the best ones to use for recipes calling for caramelized onions. In fact, some sweet onions can be eaten out of hand like an apple! Melissa’s Perfect Sweets from Washington State and the famous Maui onion are popular varieties within this group.

It is hoped that this article has been instrumental in raising the reader’s opinion of the “lowly” onion, as well as a useful aid in making an informed decision on what variety of dry onion to use for a particular recipe or, perhaps, in choosing that special gift for the couple about to tie the knot who has everything. However, it would not be advisable to attempt payment of either rent or mortgage with any of the aforementioned varieties, no matter how tasty and beautifully colored they may be!