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"Chop half an onion and sauté in oil (or butter)..." Formulated one way or another, a familiar opening for many recipes. The onion is the secret ingredient for many dishes, harmonizes, improves and enhances - so long as it stays in the background where it does its best magic. Exceptions, of course are onion sauces and specialties such as filled onion or onion quiche. Its natural sweetness combines perfectly with tomatoes or as onion confit where perhaps a little apple slowly cooked with the caramelizing onion (and with little orange juice added) is a gourmet's delight perfect with duck, pork, game birds and lamb. Or just on its own with a little bread.
Originating in Asia, older than the pyramids and known to the Babylonians, the not-so-humble onion is one of the oldest cultivated plants and the starting point for many western dishes. The Romans had three words for this member of the Alliaceae* family: unio, cepa and bulbus. English and French words are derived from unio (onion, oignon), cepa Italian and Spanish (cipolla, cebolla). The German word 'Zwiebel' is derived from Roman 'cepula' which means as much as 'little head'. As the Romans conquered ever West- and Northward, they brought with them the onion where it spread throughout the Mediterranean, European countries and beyond.
The onion is about 85-90% water, 7-10% carbohydrate, 1-2% protein and about .33% fat. Excellent vitamin source, A, B, C, is an excellent source of potassium, magnesium, silica and calcium. About 100 g. of onion equals roughly 30 calories.
According to food statistics conducted in Europe, the British lead in onion usage with the Germans following. In Germany, the onion is the most popular ingredient with the tomato following second. France follows the Germans in onion usage with Spain and Italy rather much equal. In records more than 5,200 years old, the ancient Egyptians documented it as a sacrificial food for the gods, placed it in tombs, for culinary purposes and prescribed it as a medicine for myriad complaints such as loss of appetite, a diuretic, rheumatism, arthritis, colds, bronchitis and as an antiseptic. Broken hearts, snake bite and blindness were thought to be cured in Medieval times by onion treatments. In home remedy uses today, the onion is still a favourite, highly valued as a phlegm loosening agent and for its antiseptic properties...though surely not any longer for romantic disappointments.
*Onion was at one time classified in the Liliaceae family but has since been reclassified to its own family - Alliaceae which includes all onions, leeks and garlic. The common cooking onion (Spanish onion) is the Allium cepa L. of the Alliaceae family.
...is a problem for many and there are just as many tips on how to handle the onion to avoid the problem of streaming eyes. Most likely you have heard or tried them all, but a good point to remember is that older onions have lost much moisture and so have a greater concentration of alliin-a sulphur compound found in higher levels nearest the root - which is what inflames the mucus membranes and the eyes making them tear. For this reason, when you peel the onion, peel downwards and pull off the papery peel from the root, then cut into rings. For dicing, cut the onion in half, rinse under cold water, shake off the excess and place immediately cut side down on the cutting board.
Using a sharp, not too small knife, make lengthwise cuts almost to the root, then the cross section cuts. Work quickly. A sharp knife is important to avoid crushing the cells which will result in more alliin being released. In any case, the onion should be cut just before use when it is at its best before it is exposed to too much contact with the air. Some cooks swear by holding a mouthful of water while they cut the onions...me, I just get on with it. But then I am rarely affected by The Onion Problem.
Removing the smell
Enthusiastic cooks never worry about garlic or onion smells on their hands. However, it may ruin a romantic evening. If you are worried about such things, then rub your hands with a cut lemon. Rub the juice and the pulp between your hands for a few minutes then rinse. Or use stainless steel. Don't bother to purchase one of those 'smell remover' stainless steel 'eggs' or bars - they are just stainless steel objects. Just rub your wet hands with a large spoon or soup ladle. Just as good (or not) and without another redundant object in your kitchen. I think the lemon trick works better.
There are so many ranging from the wild onion, to the famous huge and sweet white Vidalia onion of USA origin to the tiny white pearl onion, the so called 'Spanish' onion, with the tan to light brown skin (the common cooking onion), the French varieties of shallots ranging from white to purplish squatty and round to longish and oval, the delicate scallion or spring (green onion) favoured in Asian cooking but gaining more use in the Western world beyond salad useage as a good choice for a mild touch, the large white salad onions looking like huge scallions - sweet, mild and juicy and the deep purple (red) onions mild to medium mild and divine. My personal favourite for special dishes - shallots and red onions with the later a favourite for salads as well. Here in Spain - where the 'Spanish' onion originated - we have the best selection of summer and winter crops (we don't call them Spanish onions...just onions - cebolla).
Summer onions are planted in March and are ready from August until the end of September, have a thinner skin and are juicier. Late crops of these onions can be stored until spring of the following year. Their skins are thicker and darker. In areas that have a mild winter, the so called winter onions are planted in August, begin to ripen by late Spring and are ready for harvest in June/July. Here on the Mediterranean we have a steady supply all the year of delicious onions!
Keep in a cool, dry and dark place, never in the refrigerator where the environment is too humid. The juicy onions such as the white and red onions have the shortest shelf life. Purchase them in smaller quantities if you do not have the ideal place to store them.
baked - An important ingredient in quiches, onion pies, meat and vegetable pies, casseroles.
boiled - What stew or soup would taste as good without some addition of onion? Small onions gently boiled whole until still firm, turned in butter and baked until done as an accompaniment to meat or vegetarian dishes. And then there is the famous French Onion Soup! Parboil small pearl onions for just barely a minute to remove the outer skin easily.
braised - Along with meats, or to prepare a sauce the slow cooking is optimal for release the full flavour and sweetness.
cooked - In almost all thinkable dishes, an important ingredient.
confit - Thin slices cut lengthways and slowly cooked in not too hot fat until transparent is an optimal method to taste the best an onion has to offer. Click here for my Red Onion Confit recipe with several variations.
fried - Until brown to dark brown but not burnt to top meats, garnish grains or vegetarian dishes. Or thick rings battered and deep fried or used in tempura - they retain a firmness and light crunch.
raw - For salads choose white, red onions or other mild onions such as shallots, spring (green) onions. Or chop/slice a normal cooking onion and soak in cold water for at least 15 minutes to tame the bite
roasted - A traditional addition around roasts of all kinds, or as part of a roast vegetable dish.
salad - Finely sliced rings from the tender yellow/green to white part mixed with apple, toasted walnuts with or without cooked chicken breast or just tossed with any salad.
sautéed - In butter or oil, or water/broth sautéed ('sweated') until tender to golden is the traditional starting point.
vegetables - Dances well with almost all vegetables from aubergine to zucchini - though you may find unnecessary with vegetables such as cauliflower or broccoli. However, a little sautéed minced onion added to a white or cheese sauce is just the thing to change an otherwise bland sauce into a delicious one.
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The Epicurean Table www.epicureantable.com © 2006
Patricia Conant, columnist and food writer
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