The onion used to be kind of the Fonzie of produce: It wasn’t big on class, although it had a certain roguish charm.
When bitten, it bit you back.
When heat was applied, it filled the room with its megawatt personality.
But delicate and refined? Never.
That was way back before the suave cippolini and debonair Vidalia blew into town. Now, onions get invited to all the best places.
Markets are filled with an astounding variety of onions these days, and many of them appear in the spring.
Sweet Vidalia onions from Georgia and their California equivalent from the Imperial Valley are now in stores.
Shoppers can also buy not only regular spring green onions (also called scallions), but also red scallions, red pearl onions and even ramps (a wild relative of chives).
Onions are the most consumed vegetable in the world and the third-most popular vegetable in the United States after potatoes and lettuce. Americans eat approximately 1.5 million pounds of onions each day – nearly 18.6 pounds per person each year, up from 12.2 pounds per person in 1983.
The sweet spring onions compete for attention with the regular storage onions available year-round: yellow, white, Bermuda, Spanish and purple. Confused? No wonder. But this can help you sort it out.
The first rule of onion buying is that all onions are interchangeable. Use them however you like. The finished dish will taste just fine.
That said, you may prefer to eat sweet onions raw and storage onions cooked, to showcase their particular flavors.
The differences between sweet and storage onions are many. Sweet onions are plucked from the ground and sold fresh. Storage onions are cured before picking – the stalks are bent over and the onions are left to dry for several weeks, which toughens the outer skins.
Sweet onions have thin skins and a high water content and must be refrigerated or they’ll spoil. Storage onions are less juicy and may be stored at room temperature.
The biggest difference, however, is in flavor. Although there’s no official standard, sweet onions generally contain at least 6 percent sugar and have lower levels of sulfur compounds than do storage onions. The pyruvic acid in sulfur is what makes onions taste strong and causes tears.
In stores, you can usually tell the difference between sweet and storage onions by shape, skin and price. Many sweet onions are slightly flattened. The skins are thin and pliable, and they cost more than storage onions. Also, most sweet onions are tagged individually with a tiny sticker that bears the onion’s name.
Storage onions are more difficult to tell apart. They don’t come with handy little stickers.
Spanish onions used to be the only oversize yellow onions on the market. They were prized for their mild flavor. But now many of the large yellow onions in stores pack a peppery punch.
Large, slightly flat Bermuda onions also were a favorite in decades past because of their relatively mild flavor. They’re harder to find now, though, and may be confused with regular white globe onions.
Purple onions stand out in the crowd because of their lush, deep-red color. These storage onions are fickle, though.
Some have a milder flavor than regular yellow or white globe onions, while others are sharp. Chefs like them because they caramelize evenly.
How To Peel An Onion
Aw, quit your bawling. Peeling onions isn’t that bad. For centuries, cooks have tried to peel and chop onions without “crying,” which is caused by sulfuric compounds released by the onions.
Old wives’ tales have produced some silly moments in the kitchen. Cooks have peeled onions while holding unlit matches between their teeth, while balancing onion slices on their heads and with their mouths crammed full of bread. All to no avail.
Years ago, Julia Child tested several methods and concluded that wearing swimming goggles was the best way to prevent “crying.”
More recently, Cook’s magazine tested 22 methods. The best way to peel an onion without overworking your tear ducts, concluded, is to wear contact lenses.
Goggles worked fairly well and so did burning a candle near the cutting board.
Refrigerating the onion before cutting was somewhat successful.
Another method is to position a small fan near the cutting board, or chop the onion between the burners on the stove, under the exhaust hood. The air current carries the sulfuric acid away.
When you’re done chopping, sprinkle salt on your palms and rub them together under running water. The onion odor will vanish.
Types Of Onions
Vidalia: The Georgia hybrid was discovered in 1931 but gained fame in the 1980s when a group of Vidalia farmers launched a vigorous promotional campaign. They were the first sweet onions to be available nationally. They were originally available in spring and early summer only, but now are available through fall.
Sweet Imperial: The California version of the Vidalia is grown in the Imperial Valley and is available from April though June. The globe-shaped onions are at least 21/2 inches in diameter.
Cippolini: These trendy newcomers are smaller than Vidalias but larger than boiling onions. They are flat, with thin skins and a medium-sweet flavor. They appear in late spring.
Walla Walla: These are the granddaddies of American sweet onions. They are said to have originated from seeds brought to the Pacific Northwest from Corsica at the turn of the 20th century. They’re available mid-June to mid-August.
Maui: The famous Hawaiian sweet onions are grown in volcanic soil. They’re a favorite of tourists and are available from April though December.
AmeriSweet: Grown in low-sulfur soil in the Grand Rapids area, this Michigan sweet onion is round rather than flattened and is about 3 to 4 inches in diameter. AmeriSweets are harvested in September and are available though October.
SpringSweets and 1015 SuperSweets: Both were developed at Texas A&M University to help Texas farmers cash in on the sweet-onion craze.
OSO Sweets: South America, especially Chile, began growing these onions in 1989 to provide sweet onions to the American market in the off season. They’re available from January through March.
Rio Sweet: Another South American sweet onion, this variety is available from October through December.
Yellow globe: The most common onion type, they can be medium or large. They are always pungent. They’re available year-round.
White globe: They’re similar to yellow globe onions, but slightly less pungent. They’re available year-round.
Bermuda: These large, slightly flat onions may be yellow or white. They’re available in the spring and have a milder flavor than regular globe onions.
Spanish: The large, spherical onions are usually yellow and have a milder flavor than globe onions. They are available year-round.
Purple or red: The deep red color makes this a popular onion for salads and sandwiches. They caramelize beautifully, although cooking destroys the color. They range from pungent to fairly mild. They are available year-round.
Green onions (scallions): The slim onions with the long, green tops are actually just immature yellow or white globe onions. The flavor can range from medium-mild to quite sharp.
Red scallions: They’re similar to green onions, but with slightly larger, reddish root ends.