All About Onions

>> Friday, February 15, 2013

White onion slices
White onion slices
Girls, I realize that I haven't told you enough about onions, one of my favorite food ingredients. When you were growing up, I think I just did a lot of shopping and chopping without telling you why I chose one thing over another. I hope these types of kitchen tips will fill up the gaps in things I didn't get around to telling when you lived at home. So today, here's everything I can think of to share about onions.


There are lots of different onions, but three show up most frequently in recipes and in my kitchen. White onions usually have a lighter, milder taste. Because they have a more delicate taste, they work well raw. Yellow onions are sharper and more onion-y; the smaller a yellow onion is, the stronger it is likely to taste. I like to use yellow onions in cooked dishes because the flavor holds up well but they lose the sharpness. Red onions are similar to yellow, but are a little mellower in flavor; when you cook them for a long time they lose the red color. Sometimes I use red onions specifically for the color they give the dish. 

Red onion
Red onion slices

Some sub-varieties of onions are really sweet, like Vidalias (which are also really big) and Walla Walla onions. They have a higher sugar content and less sulfur, which makes them less pungent. Some people say that you can eat a Walla Walla onion like an apple, but I'm not interested in trying that!

I buy green onions when I want a very mild flavor and the bright green stalk color. I usually use them raw. Some recipes call for scallions, which taste like a mixture of garlic and onion. They are small and much more expensive than onions, so we don't use them very often. 


Yellow onions are usually the cheapest, so when it doesn't matter which type to get, those are the best option. If you buy a bag of onions instead of picking them individually out of a bin, try to get a look at all the onions in the bag. Don't buy onions that have a lot of sprouts, and don't buy ones that have black mildew on the skins, because they will taste bad and are probably old.

Look for firm onions with a good papery skin over them and ones that are not nicked or blemished or have mushy spots. If you're buying a lot of onions and the price is per-pound, try to take off as much of the skins as possible so you're not paying for the part of the onion you're not going to eat. 

If you buy green onions, make sure the tips are not wilted or soggy - they will not last long. It's best to buy green onions when you're going to use them soon, because they don't keep long, anyway. You can keep these in a glass of water in the fridge.

For Cryin' Eye

When you cut into an onion, sulfuric acid is released and will burn your eyes when it drifts upward. If you keep your onions in the fridge, the chemical won't be released so readily. 

It also helps if you wear contact lenses when cutting onions, since the fumes won't reach the surface of your eyes so easily. I know this doesn't help you, Jenn, because you don't wear contacts, but keep your face away from the cutting board and try to cut away from yourself. You can also turn on a fan or the stove's exhaust to pull the fumes away from you. 

White onions are usually the least likely to make you cry.

Cutting Onions

There are a lot of different ways to cut onions. Some people like to cut off the stem end, then cut lengthwise through the whole onion to the root end, then chop it width-wise. The advantage of this is that it holds the onion together during the process, which makes it quicker and less likely to burn your eyes. However, it's harder to peel the onion this way, and the onion tends to roll around the cutting board.

I like to cut off both ends and then cut it down the middle, then lay the cut side down and chop it into the size and shape I need. This is more stable, but of course you can't cut it down the middle if you need whole rings.

Try to keep your fingernails facing the knife, not the pads of your fingers, to minimize cutting yourself along with the food. If you have a good broad kitchen knife, try holding the tip of the knife against the cutting board with one hand while chopping the knife up and down with the other hand. Without lifting the knife tip, pivot the blade around to cut all the pieces. This makes chopping even faster. 

Always get all of the tough papery skin off the onion. This skin will just get tougher if you cook it, and it won't taste good.

Here's how Gordon Ramsay does it, and he's actually being polite about it: Gordon Ramsay How to Chop an Onion. 

Here's how the Reluctant Gourmet says to do it: How to Cut an Onion. This is a great site for other kitchen tips, too.

After you cut the onion, if you don't want such a strong taste, you can put the bits in a strainer and pour boiling water over them. Just let them drain completely before using them. You can also use onion powder when you want a milder onion taste without the actual onion bits. 


If you don't keep your onions in the fridge, keep them in a cool dark place like a bottom cabinet (heat rises, right?). Check on them once in a while to make sure they're not sprouting. If they do, you can still use them, but the flavor will change, and they won't last as long after they start to sprout. If one of your onions goes rotten, wash the other ones so that they don't start rotting, too. They keep best in a paper bag; they will rot or spout more easily in a plastic bag where the moisture is held around them.

If you use only part of an onion, and you want to save the rest, put it in plastic wrap and then in a plastic bag. This will prevent the onion smell from tainting everything in your refrigerator. 

That's all I can think of for now. Of course, you can always get ahold of me if you have questions.


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