History of Alliums 

There are more than four hundred species of the genus Allium, belonging to the Lily family. Food historians believe onions originated in the region of modern-day Iran and Pakistan 5000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians believed that onions symbolized the universe and offered them to their deities. In the first century BCE, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote extensively about the healing properties of onions. In Eastern Europe, onions were used for fortune telling, and English maidens used them in fortunetelling rituals to predict their future husbands and the weather. Brought to the Americas by the Spanish, the onion soon became a staple of early American colonists and the native people. In the past, onions were used for dying fabric, and they are still used for dying Easter eggs. Over the winter months, I save my onion skins and use them later to dye Easter eggs. (Instructions are here

Onion’s skin very thin,

Mild winter’s coming in. 

Onion’s skin thick and tough,

Coming winter cold and rough.  

               Anonymous

Many Types 

Onion bulbs range in shape from flattened to globular to pointy shaped, all comprising multi-layers of skins. Onions are usually named for their shape, color, taste, or place of origin. There are whiteyellowred, and pearl boiling varieties. (Learn more about pearl onions here). They either mature in spring, summer or fall. An average grocery carries around six varieties of onions.  White Onions, and the crunchiest, work well in chutneys, in salsa, and for stir-frying, while red onions are traditionally used in guacamole, for pickling, and on sandwiches.  Yellow onions are sometimes called cooking onions and are used for soups, stews, and sauces.  Shallots are divided into multiple sections and contain two to four large cloves, which makes them look like amber-colored garlic. Even though they are relatively expensive, they are favorites of professional chefs for their mild and delicate flavor, and they are superstars for their nutrition. Shallots are often used in dressings and salads. The rarest variety is the French Gray shallot which, unlike the regular shallots, does not store well because they have not been as genetically altered as the regular shallots.  Leeks (read more here) are a tall, mild-flavored slender bulb on a long stalk resembling a large scallion. Leeks should be used quickly because their nutritional value declines after a few days in the refrigerator.  Wild onions are a type of chive. Chives are the only perennials in the onion family.They are the smallest of alliums and often self-propagate in our yards and are the staple ingredient in omelets.  Onion chives are best eaten raw, while garlic chives are better cooked. They are the most nutritious of all alliums and are frequently used in Asian cooking. Dehydrating them destroys their flavor and nutritional value.  Scallions go by many names, including green onionsspring onions, or salad onions, and they can replace onions in most dishes. They are also highly nutritious. To discover new varieties of onions, visit Asian stores or farmers’ markets where prices are also lower. 

New Sweet Varieties 

Around 1850, new, sweeter varieties of onions were introduced. The famous Walla Walla variety, now grown in Washington, originated in Corsica and was the first in the succession of sweet onion breeds.  Vidalia is the most common sweet onion, having 16% sugar, the same as the sweetest variety of apples, and are the easiest onions to eat raw. Vidalias are grown in Georgia and are in season from May through July. 

The More Pungent, the Better

Onions contain vitamin C, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, and iron but the most beneficial nutrient in onions is the phytonutrient called quincerin, which has antiviral, antibacterial, and cancer-fighting properties. If you are after nutritional value, reach out for a hotter variety because strongly flavored onions are the best for your health. The Western Yellow onion contains eight times the antioxidants of Vidalia onions. Scientists have also discovered that the smaller the onion, the lower its water content and, therefore, the more phytonutrients it contains. When eating them raw, slice them as thin as possible. The most nutritional varieties are Red BaronRed WalkingRed Wethersfield, or New York Bold onions. Cooking pungent onion brings out its sweetness, lessens the fire, and increases its nutritional content. Boiling onions transfers their nutrition to the cooking liquids.  

How to Prevent the Tears

Onions contain a tear-causing volatile oil called allycropyl. Older onions are stronger than fresh bulbs. There are a few good tips for preventing irritating fumes from getting into your eyes. To reduce the pungency of onions, run the bulb under cold water while peeling it, or pour a little vinegar on the cutting board. Chilling the onions before slicing is said to reduce the tears as well. To remove the odor of onion from a knife, cut it through a raw potato. Fresh lemon removes the odor of onions from the hands. After eating an onion, chew on a spring of parsley.

Storing Onions

When purchasing onions, be sure to select the ones that do not have their dry outer layers removed. These papery skins prevent the onion from spoiling too fast. They should feel firm and free of bruises or blemishes. Sweet onions do not keep well because of their high moisture content. Be sure to store them on a shelf in the refrigerator and not in the crisper, which is too humid. Other types of onions can simply be stored in a net bag for up to two weeks in a dark, cool place, such as an unheated garage. If storing onions in the refrigerator, remember that milk, cream, or butter will absorb the aroma of the onion, so keep them stored in a glass container or plastic storage bag. 

How to Cut Onions

It is said that one can tell a professional chef from the way they cut an onion. It is fun to watch an actor or actress play a chef in a movie! 

Rule number one: always start with a very sharp knife. Dull knives are actually the most dangerous since they have a tendency to slide around. Also, start slowly; speed comes with time and practice.  

There are several ways to cut an onion: here, I am going to discuss two which are the most common. 

whole onion, root side up, on a cutting board

First, remove the dry outer skin and cut it in half lengthwise through the root. 

half an onion on a cutting board being cut in vertically

Make several vertical cuts, starting one inch away from the root end. 

half an onion on a cutting board being cut in vertically

DO NOT cut through the root, as it will hold your onion together during cutting, preventing it from falling apart or sliding. To avoid cutting yourself, curl your fingers under, which is one of the cardinal rules of cutting and culinary knife skills.   

half an onion on a cutting board being cut in horizontally

Now start making layered horizontal cuts into the onion. This is the part where a sharp knife is a must. 

half an onion on a cutting board being cut in thin slices to form diced pieces

The last step is to turn the onion 90 degrees and cut thin slices again. Now the onion is ready for sautéing.  

onion on a cutting board being cut into thin slices

This second technique is for recipes that call for thinly sliced onion halves, such as for hamburgers or Italian caramelized onion with Balsamic vinegar. 

Caramelized Onions with Balsamic Vinegar

Ingredients

2-3 red onions

3 Tbs Olive Oil 

2-3 Tbs Balsamic Vinegar

Balsamic vinegar comes in a wide price range. But the best one your can afford. Quality balsamic vinegar is syrupy and sweet. Learn more about the origins and types of Italian balsamic vinegar here

bottle of balsamic vinegar
Thinly sliced onions in a shallow pan on the stove

Place thinly sliced onion into a pan with olive oil and cook on low heat until it is fully caramelized about 90 minutes. Do not try to speed up the process by turning the heat up!

cooked, carmalized onions in a shallow pan on the stove

When the onion is caramelized, it should look like this. 

bottle of balsamic vinegar

Add balsamic vinegar. 

carmelized onions and balsamic vinegar in a white serving bowl

Mix well. 

Steak with carmalized onions on top, served on a plate with sides of cabbage, slaw and lentils.

Serve caramelized onions warm or cold or as a side dish. Here they are served on a hamburger.

Disclaimer:

Information contained here is not intended to treat or cure any diseases or to be a substitute for medical advice.

Magda Born

mborn@kckpl.org

Community Services Librarian

Kansas City, Kansas Public Library

625 Minnesota Ave.

Kansas City, KS 66101

913-295-8250 ext 1103

Resources:

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15506817/

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17997520/

https://www.onions-usa.org

https://nutritionfacts.org/topics/onions/

Sources:

book cover Onions - Condiment Nutrient Medicine

Onions: condiment, nutrient, medicine  by Clarence Meyer and David Meyer

Format: Book

Call Number: 641.6525 MEYER

book cover Onions Etcetera

Onions, etcetera : the essential allium cookbook: more than 150 recipes for leeks, scallions, garlic, shallots, ramps, chives and every sort of onion  by Kate Winslow and Guy Ambrosino

Format: Book

Call Number: 641.6525 WINSLOW