If most people were asked to name their favorite vegetable, few would answer onions. They’re not the prettiest vegetable in the kitchen and their pungent odor has the potential to make your eyes weep. Being available all year-round probably doesn’t help their cause either – unlike raspberries or figs which make an appearance for a short time, once a year then disappear. Scarcity heightens demand. These are all reasons for the onion being a little under-appreciated.
But where would a cook be left without onions. The simple answer is: lost.
Onions are regarded as ‘the king of vegetables’ – they’ve been used as a food flavoring longer than any other vegetable. That’s impressive!
For savory courses, there are few dishes where onions, or their cousins the leek, garlic or shallots, are not used. They are versatile enough to be boiled, blanched, sauteed, roasted or fiercely fried. They can also be used as the hero of a dish – think classics like onion soup or onion tarts. The French have made these for centuries, and for good reason. The taste is exceptional.
How to choose a good onion
Onions are picked in spring and summer so this is the best time to buy them sweeter and slightly milder – perfect for salads. Interestingly, the onions you buy in fall and winter are from the some crops. However, the farmer will leave the onions in the ground several weeks longer allowing the onion to grow bigger, reduce in moisture and develop a thicker skin. These have a stronger flavor and aroma – they are best cooked.
Choose firm onions that are free from bruising and have shiny skins. Avoid them if you wet spots or they look especially dry.
Types of onions
Also known as Italian onions, these are mild flavored onions with a slightly sweet taste and an attractive appearance. They’re widely available in most supermarkets.
Best for: thinly slice and add raw to salads and antipasto dishes.
Also known as brown onions, these are extremely common and can be recognized by their brown skin. They are an excellent all-round ingredient with a strong flavor and pungent aroma.
Best for: most dishes including pickling, casseroles, sauteed, roasted, boiled. The options are endless.
This variety comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The smaller ones are milk and are delicious added whole to sauces, stews and pot roasts. The larger version varies from mild through to strong in flavor.
Best for: As versatile as the brown onion, they are popular for pickling and for use in martinis.
Named after a town in Georgia, these onions are pale yellow in color and large in size. Being sweet and juicy, they’re highly sought after.
Best for: Roasted or in salads raw.
These onions are harvested young so that the shoots are still green. They’re mild in taste: both the stalk and bulb are suitable for eating.
Best for: Chopped into salads, on baked potatoes, added to eggs, or stir-frys.
A similar size to the Spanish onion, this variety has a mild flavor and a squat appearance.
Best for: Serve fried slices with burgers and steak.
These onions have a lovely copper color and are significantly larger than other more common varieties such as the yellow onion. Their flavor is delicate and sweet.
Best for: Serve thinly sliced, raw in salads. Also great baked or stuffed whole.
How to peel an onion
- Peel away the outer skin, which is papery, with your hands.
- Use a paring knife or chef’s knife to cut off the stem as well as most of the root (leave a little intact).
- Cut the onion in half.
- Hold a paring knife life you would a peeler and carefully peel back a layer. Once removed, if the onion still looks like it has some tough skin, peel back another layer.
- Repeat step 4 with the other half of the onion.
Technique: Finely Dice
There’s an easy way and a hard way to finely chop onions. This method is the easy way and it will allow you to chop uniform sized pieces so that the onion all gets cooked at the same time.
The secret it to peel the onion, leaving the root intact, so that the onion stays in one piece as you chop. Once the onion is peeled, follow these steps:
- Slice the onion in half lengthwise, so that the root gets cut in half.
- Take one half of the onion and place the flat side down.
- Slice the onion vertically, stopping just short of the root. If you want very fine pieces make the slices very close together.
- Placing your hand on the top of the onion, carefully make three horizontal slices, making sure to stop before reaching the root.
- Finally, hold the onion together and make another set of vertical slices so that you end up with finely diced onion.
- Repeat these steps with the other half of the onion.
The first time you try this technique, it may seem time consuming. Stick with it though. After a few onions you’ll find it’s actually a very quick method and the end result is much better than other options.
- Cut onion in half lengthwise then remove the outer skin.
- Place the onion on a chopping board, flat side down.
- Use the tip of a paring knife or chef’s knife to cut even slices.
- Peel and slice onions.
- Add butter or oil to a skillet on medium to high heat. The amount of butter should be about 1 Tbsp for each medium sized onion.
- Add chopped onions to the skillet and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes or until tender.
- Peel onions and trim ends with a paring knife.
- Add onions to a pot of salted boiling water for 30-45 minutes or until the layers are falling apart.
- Pour onions into a strainer to remove water.
- Serve onions with salt, pepper and a knob of butter mixed through.
How do I store onions?
Store onions in a cool, dry area. Avoid storing in the fridge or in plastic bags.
How long do onions last?
Fresh onions will last 1-2 months in summer. This shelf life can extend to 4 months in winter. Peeled, chopped onions will last 1 week if kept refrigerated, in a sealed plastic bag.
How do I cut onions without crying?
Place a glass of water next to your chopping board – the onion juices will be attracted to the moisture in the glass rather than your eyes. If you’re in a hurry or don’t have a glass handy, try simply opening your mouth!
Onions may not be the prettiest vegetable in the kitchen, but they are worth their weight in gold. They’re a key ingredient in a huge number of dishes and their hearty aroma is hard to beat once you start cooking.
Learning a few simple techniques will make your onion experience a lot more enjoyable. Dicing onions can be frustrating but it doesn’t need to be. Using the technique mentioned in this article will reduce your prep time and result in perfectly sized onion pieces.
Do you have a technique to chop onions that we haven’t mentioned here? Let us know on our social pages. We’d love to hear from you!
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