The many-layered onion

A primer on this cooking essential

October 16, 2007

The best part of any recipe, as I see it, is when the onions go into the pan. And if there are no onions, what kind of recipe is that?

Despite the name of this column, bacon is only my second-favorite ingredient; my favorite is the yellow storage onion. Bacon is a lead guitarist. Onions are the bass player. And as a friend told me in high school, bass players get all the chicks. He was a bass player, so this may be exaggerated, and I’m not sure what it has to do with onions, but it seems like important advice, so I’m passing it on.

Anyway, onions are the dependable bit players of the kitchen: inexpensive, versatile, always in the pantry. Well, mostly dependable. Onions are such good friends, it’s heartbreaking when they let you down. They can sprout and turn green. And they can look fine on the outside but conceal a mushy gray interior.

So what’s the deal with onions?

I tracked down a couple of onion people — a term, in my book, of endearment. Steve Grod is a produce specialist for SYSCO Foods in northern Wisconsin. Eddie Alvarez grows five acres of onions (along with dozens of other vegetables and fruits) on Alvarez Farm, his family’s organic farm in Mabton, Washington.

Pineapple upside-down cake? No, it’s Supper Onion Pie.

Is that onion fresh?
Except for sweet onions, yellow onions are rarely sold fresh; they’re cured. After the harvest (in June and July), they’re dried in the field, a shed, or an atmosphere-controlled facility and then stored in a very cold and dry warehouse until it’s time for their star turn on the shelves beginning in August. This is similar to what happens with apples in the fall. Properly stored, onions can last a year.

That said, Alvarez harvests onions throughout the summer with green tops to sell as fresh salad onions. “The ones I can’t sell, I leave in the ground and harvest them dry,” he adds. Those go into a curing shed for three to four weeks before storage and eventual sale. I buy them every week at my farmers’ market.

Why do onion prices go up in midsummer?
The previous year’s onions are running out, and sometimes what you’re seeing is fresh spring and summer onions, which are not cured; they bruise more easily and are more costly to transport. At my local supermarket, onions were $1.99 a pound in July, but the price dropped to 99 cents a pound in August. Personally, I like the storage onions better than the fresh onions, which are harder to peel.

Where do American onions come from?
Mostly the West Coast, plus Texas, Colorado, and a few other states. Grod buys his onions from Oregon and Idaho.

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How many onions do Americans eat per year?
Six billion pounds, according to the National Onion Association. That’s about 20 pounds per person, or about an ounce per day. I eat way more than my share.

What about sweet onions, like Walla Wallas, Mauis, or Vidalias? Are they cured, too?
No, they’re not cured, and they don’t store well as a result. Sweet onions are no higher in sugar than regular onions; instead, they’re lower in the sulfurous compounds that make you cry when you chop onions. Those same compounds help preserve onions in storage. “But I have personally had some in my house since June” and they’re doing fine, said Grod near the end of the summer.

Sometimes I buy an onion and the crunchy white part has turned green — why?
Hey, that crunchy white part has a name: leaves. The onion’s leaves turn green because the onion is too wet and thinks it’s time to start growing, so a shoot begins to grow in the center of the onion and the outer leaves develop chlorophyll. This can happen because the onion was inadequately dried before storage, or because you’ve been keeping it in a moist place. A cool, dry pantry is the best place for onions; don’t store them in a bag.

But the greening thing isn’t a big deal. “It is cosmetic and shouldn’t change the flavor,” advises Grod. If it bothers you, peel off a couple of layers of leaves or chop off the top of the onion.

What causes a gray and mushy onion, and how do I avoid it?
Extreme temperature change — anything over 60 degrees and 75 percent humidity, according to Grod. “Higher humidity leads to root growth and greening through the center, which in time will turn to decay,” he says. “And never store onions with potatoes, because they will take on moisture and quickly decay.”

But what do you do if your beautiful onions, fresh from the store and untouched by spuds, are already sad on the inside? Return the onions, complain to the produce manager, and hope that he passes your complaint on to his supplier rather than just banning you from his store.

How do I chop an onion, anyway?
Helen Rennie penned an entire article on chopping onions for Culinate’s Front Burner column. And Shauna James, who keeps the blog Gluten-Free Girl and is married to a chef named Danny Ahern, recently posted an extensive primer on knives and onions, starring her husband.

Shallots are pretty tasty too, aren’t they?
Absolutely. And essential for a lot of Southeast Asian and French cooking. But they’re dang expensive.

Yeah, why is that? Are they harder to grow than onions?
No. But they have somewhat less yield per acre and are more perishable. It’s easy to find moldy shallots at the supermarket, which is why I’m always delighted to see shallots at the farmers’ market, even at $7 a pound.

Do you have any recipes that give onions a starring role?
Glad you asked. “I like them wrapped in a little bit of foil,” says Alvarez. “I cut them up first, put a little bit of butter in the middle, salt and pepper, wrap it back in the foil and put it on the grill with meat on the side. Oh my God, it’s so delicious.”

I make Nigella Lawson’s Supper Onion Pie. The original recipe calls for red onions, but I like it even better with yellow storage onions. Try it with a side of bacon.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

There are 6 comments on this item
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1. by Kim on Oct 16, 2007 at 2:18 PM PDT

Matthew: I have learned to love onions as an adult, but as a child, I couldn’t stand them (nor could I stand celery -- sadly, that hasn’t changed). What about Iris? Does she eat onions?

2. by Tea on Oct 17, 2007 at 9:59 AM PDT

I hated onions and celery as well--and eggplant. As a kid I told people I was allergic just to avoid them.

3. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Oct 17, 2007 at 2:09 PM PDT

Kim, I don’t think I thought much about onions as a kid. Iris usually likes onions if they’re part of a sauce and come out as soft, sauce-flavored bits. She wouldn’t actively put grilled onions on a burger the way I would.

I don’t like raw onions except in salsa or minced on a taco.

4. by Kim on Oct 17, 2007 at 4:58 PM PDT

OK, so I’m going to try the onion pie (even if my daughter takes after me and won’t touch it until she’s 20). And that has me thinking about another favorite onion recipe, a good cold-weather one: James Beard’s carmelized onion pasta sauce. It’s really rich, but also really, really good. How could you go wrong with onions and butter and Madeira for about an hour at low temp? I think it’s Madeira, but it might be Marsala. I want to put his pasta book on the site, and when I do, I’ll add that recipe too.

5. by Kimberly Reddin on Oct 29, 2007 at 9:06 AM PDT

Great article and good solid facts about onions! Kudos to you Matt and to Steve and Eddie for their info too. Thank you very much for referencing the National Onion Association. If you or any of your readers need recipe ideas or information, please feel free to email or call our office anytime.

6. by Meadowlarkgurl on Nov 16, 2007 at 11:25 AM PST

I use sherry-carmelized purple onions on my pizzas... those, parmesan and walnuts. Onion Heaven.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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