The Diverse World of Onions
September 10, 2023
Types of Onions
Onions are a staple in kitchens worldwide, contributing a unique flavor to a wide array of dishes. This culinary mainstay's versatility is as remarkable as its variety, with different types of onions lending themselves to different culinary applications. Whether you're a professional cook or a home food enthusiast, understanding the diverse world of onions can elevate your cuisine. This guide will introduce you to the most common types of onions, their origins, nutritional information, and best uses.
The Diverse World of Onions: A Cheatsheet
- Yellow Onions: These onions have a strong flavor and are excellent for cooking.
- White Onions: With a milder taste, white onions are commonly used in Mexican cuisines.
- Red Onions: Red onions have a slightly sweet and crisp flavor, ideal for salads and sandwiches.
- Sweet Onions: These onions are known for their mild and sweet taste, perfect for caramelizing.
- Shallots: Shallots have a delicate and subtle flavor, adding depth to any dish.
- Scallions: Also known as green onions, these have a mild flavor and are great for garnishing.
- Vidalia Onions: These sweet onions have a low sulfur content, making them perfect for enjoying raw.
- Choose the right variety for your region and purpose.
- Plant onion sets or seedlings in well-drained soil and full sun.
- Keep the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged.
- Avoid planting in soil with high sulfur content.
- Regularly fertilize and weed the onion bed.
- Harvest the bulbs when the tops have fallen over and dried out.
- Cure onions in a warm, dry place for a few weeks before storing.
- Store onions in a cool, dark, and dry location with good airflow.
- Check stored onions regularly for signs of spoilage.
- Save some bulbs for replanting next year if desired.
- Use yellow or white onions for sautéing and caramelizing.
- Red onions are great for raw applications, like salads or salsas.
- Sweet onions are perfect for grilling or roasting.
- Shallots add depth of flavor to sauces, dressings, and stir-fries.
- Scallions are great as a garnish or in Asian dishes.
- Be careful not to overcook onions, as they can become bitter.
- Experiment with different onion varieties to discover new flavors and combinations.
Tools and Supplies:
- Gardening gloves
- Garden trowel
- Well-rotted compost or organic fertilizer
- Garden hose or watering can
- Sharp knife
- Storage containers (mesh bags or ventilated crates)
- Proper ventilation for storage area
1. The Odyssey of Onions
The journey of onions from wild plant to kitchen essential is a captivating one. Most food historians trace the origins of onions back to Central Asia, with some narrowing the location down further to Iran or Pakistan. Archaeological evidence suggests that our ancestors consumed wild onions long before recorded history, around 7,000 years ago. This might explain the vast variety of onions we have today.
Today, the largest producers of onions include China and India, with the United States following closely as the third largest producer and the largest importer. The Netherlands takes the title of the largest exporter. Onions belong to the allium family, which also includes chives, garlic, leeks, and shallots. Despite the differences among these family members, they share similar culinary uses, which we'll explore in this guide.
Onions are prized for their versatility. They can be roasted, grilled, pickled, caramelized, deep-fried into onion rings, used as a topping for burgers or sandwiches, or added raw into salads. Given their universal appeal, it's little wonder that Americans consume an average of 20 lbs of onions each year.
2. Nutritional Snapshot of Onions
Onions are more than just a flavor enhancer; they're a healthy addition to your diet. While they might not boast the vitamin and mineral profile of powerhouses like spinach, they offer a decent nutritional punch. For a 100 gram serving, onions provide the following:
- Calories: 40 kcal
- Protein: 1.1 grams
- Fiber: 1.7 grams
- Vitamin A: 0% of the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA)
- Vitamin C: 12% of the RDA
- Vitamin B6: 6% of the RDA
- Calcium: 2% of the RDA
- Potassium: 4% of the RDA
3. A Closer Look at Different Types of Onions
There are thousands of onion varieties worldwide, but we'll focus on the most common ones you're likely to encounter in your cooking adventures.
3.1 Sweet Onions
Sweet onions are characterized by their flat tops and bottoms and short bodies. They're a delight to the taste buds, with their sweet and juicy flavor making them a great addition to salads or as a sandwich topping. Notable types of sweet onions include the Bermuda, Maui, and Vidalia onions.
3.2 Red Onions
Red onions are renowned for their sweet, mild flavor. They're a common choice for burger toppings in many restaurants and are great additions to salads, sandwiches, soups, and wraps. Plus, their vibrant red color adds a visual appeal to dishes.
3.3 White Onions
White onions are a versatile variety with a strong flavor. They're a common ingredient in Mexican recipes and are perfect for homemade salsa or guacamole. Their high water content also makes them a great choice for onion rings.
3.4 Yellow Onions
Yellow onions, also known as brown onions in some places, are a culinary jack-of-all-trades. Their strong, pungent flavor mellows and turns sweet when cooked, making them the ideal choice for recipes requiring caramelized onions.
3.5 Pearl Onions
Pearl onions, or button onions, are small onions with a sweet, mild taste. These onions are popular choices for roasts, pickles, stews, or glazes.
Shallots are closely related to onions but grow in clusters or cloves like garlic. They're generally sweeter than most onions and are a staple in French and Asian cuisines. They're also a great substitute for red onions in recipes calling for caramelized onions.
3.7 Scallions (Green Onions)
Scallions, or green onions, are immature onions with a small bulb. Both the bulb and the green shoot are usable in a variety of cuisines, with the shoots often used in omelets, soup toppings, savory biscuits, tacos, stir fries, and salsa.
4. Getting to Know Less Common Types of Onions
While the above-mentioned onions are the most commonly used, there are several other varieties worth knowing.
4.1 Cipollini Onion
Cipollini onions, originating in Italy, are very sweet onions commonly used in French Onion Soup and great when roasted or caramelized.
4.2 Cocktail Onion
Cocktail onions are normally pearl onions or white Bermuda onions that have been pickled. They're harvested while still immature to ensure a uniform small size.
4.3 Creole Onion
Also called Red Creole Onions, these small red onions are spicy and great in creole and cajun cuisine, giving an extra kick to your dishes.
4.4 Egyptian Onion
Also known as the Tree Onion, Egyptian onions grow in bunches called bulblets instead of flowering. They generally have a strong flavor, though some can be sweet and mild.
Leeks are similar to green onions but are larger and a bit milder with subtle sweet undertones. They're more fibrous than green onions, so they require longer cook times to become tender.
4.6 Mayan Sweet Onion
The Mayan sweet onion is a native of the coastal deserts of Peru. They get sweeter with cooking, making them great for caramelized onions or onion rings.
4.7 Pickling Onion
Pickling onions are generally small thin layered onions that can actually be one of several onion varieties. They're strong and pungent as pickling them enhances an onion's already strong flavor.
4.8 Red Wing Onion
Red Wing onions feature a deep red color and mild sweet flavor. They're versatile and can be used in a variety of cooked recipes but are also great raw on salads or in sandwiches.
4.9 Spanish Onion
Spanish onions are similar to yellow onions and considered one of the best onions to use in roasts. They're juicy with a sweet taste, making them also good on sandwiches or in salads.
4.10 Torpedo Onion
Torpedo onions are an ancient Italian variety known for their mild sweet flavor. They can be eaten raw or pickled, grilled, roasted, sauteed, or added to soups, dips, or pasta.
4.11 Tropea Lunga Onion
Tropea Lunga onions are another popular Italian variety. They have an elongated bulb and red skin. They're sometimes described as zesty, and their mild flavor is ideal for raw uses.
4.12 Walla Walla Sweet Onion
Walla Walla onions are native to the Island of Corsica but got their name after seeds were imported to Washington State. They're popular sweet onion variety that's commonly eaten raw but also great in egg dishes.
4.13 Welsh Onion
Contrary to their name, Welsh onions are native to China. They look like large green onions and are used in a lot of Asian cuisines.
5. Trivia Answer
Americans eat an average of 20 lbs of onions a year, up from 12 lbs 40 years ago. This goes to show that while not everyone may like onions, most Americans do.
The Diverse World of Onions - FAQ Section
Q: What are the different types of onions?
There is a wide variety of onions available for cultivation, each with its own unique flavor and usage. Common types of onions include yellow onions, red onions, white onions, scallions, shallots, and sweet onions.
Q: How do I choose the right type of onion for my recipe?
Choosing the right type of onion depends on the flavor profile you desire in your recipe. If you prefer a milder flavor, such as in salads, choose sweet onions or scallions. For stronger flavors, yellow or red onions work well in savory dishes and caramelized preparations.
Q: Can I substitute one type of onion for another in a recipe?
Yes, you can substitute one type of onion for another in most recipes. However, keep in mind that the flavor and intensity may vary. For example, substituting a red onion for a white onion may result in a slightly stronger flavor. It's always best to consider the recipe and adjust accordingly.
Q: What are the health benefits of onions?
Onions are packed with essential nutrients and antioxidants. They are a good source of vitamin C, fiber, and prebiotics, which support gut health. Onions also contain quercetin, a compound known for its anti-inflammatory properties and potential cancer-fighting effects.
Q: How should I store onions to keep them fresh?
Onions should be stored in a cool, dry, and well-ventilated place. Avoid storing them near potatoes as the two vegetables can cause each other to spoil more quickly. If stored properly, onions can last for several weeks to a few months.
Q: Can I grow different types of onions in my garden?
Absolutely! Different types of onions can be grown in your garden, provided you have the right conditions. Factors such as climate, soil type, and sunlight play a significant role in successful onion cultivation. Research the specific requirements for each type of onion and enjoy cultivating a diverse range in your garden.
Q: Are all types of onions suitable for storage?
While most types of onions can be stored, some varieties have a shorter shelf life. Sweet onions, for example, tend to have a higher water content and are better consumed fresh. Onions with thicker skins, such as yellow and red onions, are generally better suited for storage.
Q: Can I grow onions from seeds or sets?
Onions can be grown from seeds or sets. Growing from sets, which are small onion bulbs, is a popular choice for beginners as they are easier to handle. However, growing from seeds offers a wider selection of onion varieties to choose from. Both methods can yield successful onion crops.
Q: How long does it take for onions to mature?
The time it takes for onions to mature can vary depending on the type and growing conditions. On average, most onion varieties take around 90-120 days from planting to harvest. However, green onions or scallions can be harvested earlier when they reach the desired size.
Q: Can I use onion scraps to regrow onions?
Yes, you can regrow onions from scraps. Save the root ends of onions and plant them in soil with the cut sides facing up. Keep the soil moist, and within a few weeks, you'll observe new green shoots emerging. While it may take some time to produce a full-sized onion, it can be a fun and satisfying experiment.
Q: Are all onions pungent and make you cry?
Not all onions are equally pungent, and the likelihood of tearing up while cutting onions varies. Sweet onions tend to have a milder flavor and are less likely to make you cry compared to stronger varieties like yellow onions. Additionally, refrigerating onions before cutting can help reduce the tears.
In conclusion, the world of onions is as diverse as it is flavorful. By knowing the different types of onions and their best uses, you can elevate your cooking and explore new culinary landscapes. So, next time you're in the kitchen, why not experiment with a new type of onion?