By Cary Neff, Experience Life
There are hundreds of varieties of onions whose flavor and strength depend on the type of soil and time of year in which they grow. In general, the thicker the layers of onion, the stronger the flavor. Onions are separated into two main categories: fresh onions and storage (or “dry”) onions.
Fresh onions arrive in spring and summer, and you should store them in the refrigerator and eat them soon after harvesting. Examples include green onions (or scallions), and “sweet onions,” like Maui, Vidalia and Walla Walla. When selecting green onions, look for those that appear crisp yet tender and have green, fresh-looking tops. Sweet onions should be firm and heavy with water.
Storage onions are harvested in fall and winter, have a stronger flavor, store longer, and should be kept in a cool, dry place (but not refrigerated). Common examples are yellow, white and red onions. Shallots are a clustering variety of storage onion that are mild and sweet. When purchasing, choose storage onions that are clean, well shaped and tightly closed, with crisp, dry outer skins. Avoid onions that are sprouting or have signs of mold or soft spots.
Studies have suggested that onions, which are rich in phytochemicals and the antioxidant flavonoid quercetin, may help lower the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and many types of cancer, particularly colon cancer. Onions also have powerful anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antifungal and anti-parasitic properties. One cup of raw onion contains more than 20 percent of the daily requirement of the trace mineral chromium, important for helping the body to metabolize sugar and lipids. When cooked, onions have a slightly lower vitamin content, but the resulting chemical reactions increase the variety of beneficial sulfur compounds.
Next: cooking with onions
Cooked or raw, onions add depth and excitement to dishes.
- Spring and red onions bring color and flavor to salads, salsa and guacamole.
- Sweet onions are best when eaten raw or only slightly cooked, making them perfect additions to hamburgers, sandwiches and fresh salads.
- To sauté onions, heat skillet over medium-high heat and add oil to coat bottom of pan. Add thinly sliced or chopped onions and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper.
- To caramelize onions, first heat a sauté pan over medium-high heat with 2 teaspoons of butter. Add 2 pounds of thinly sliced onions and 1/4 teaspoon sea salt. Cook, stirring constantly, for 15 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook uncovered until onions are soft and brown, about 40 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes. If pan becomes dry, add a few tablespoons of vegetable stock. Season with salt and pepper.
- To prevent watery eyes when cutting an onion, chill it for an hour before chopping. This helps slow down the movement of allyl sulfate, the enzyme responsible for producing tears.
- When cutting a dry onion, chop off the top and slice in half through the root. (Leaving the root intact makes chopping easier.) Remove skin and place halves flat-side down on a cutting board. Slice to make uniform half-moon slices.
- To take the onion smell out of a wooden cutting board, wash it with a paste made from baking soda and a few drops of distilled vinegar. Rinse with warm water. Season the dried board with mineral oil.
Chef Cary Neff is the president of the consulting firm Culinary Innovations and the author of the New York Times bestseller Conscious Cuisine (Sourcebooks, 2002).