Unlike many vegetables, onions are pleasingly edible throughout their life cycle, and even beyond. From the slender scallion to the yellow storage onion, there is culinary opportunity at each stage of the onion’s development.
In early summer, farmers’ markets feature fresh onions, known as spring onions. “Spring onion” does not in this case refer to scallions (a.k.a. green onions), although that is what Asian recipes may mean by the term.
Here, “spring onion” means a fresh onion of any type — yellow, white, or red — that has started to form a bulb but is not fully mature. The ends of these new onions tend to look like small lightbulbs. Spring onions vary in size and shape, though, depending how long they are left to grow. They can be just thicker than a scallion or nearly softball-size. They come bunched with their usable green stalks.
While spring onions can be the byproduct of thinning, they have grown popular enough that farmers plant some crops for the express purpose of a late spring or early summer spring-onion harvest.
Spring onions possess the same sweet/savory yin and yang that dry yellow and red onions do, but with the balance weighted towards sweetness. They are crisp and juicy like an apple, and while not as sweet, they can come surprisingly close. With little sulfuric pungency, mild spring onions are for people who hate raw onions.
I like spring onions because you can treat them as a vegetable rather than just a seasoning. A simple way to showcase young onions is to grill them. Trim the roots, but otherwise leave the whole onion intact. If the bulb is too large to cook whole, split the onion lengthwise from bulb to green top. Lightly oil the onions and put them over moderate heat with salt and pepper. Then leave them over moderate heat, turning occasionally, until they soften and brown in spots. Spring onions are delicious just like that, and go with anything else you might grill.
They’re attractive as part of a summer buffet, too. My new favorite preparation is spring onions agrodolce, or sweet and sour. It’s especially eye-catching because after you brown the onions in a wide skillet, you simmer them in equal parts red-wine vinegar and sugar. After a few minutes, a shiny glaze coats the bulbs and the now-limp stalks.
I lay the onions out on a platter and sprinkle a garnish of chopped parsley or cilantro, or shaved curls of Parmesan cheese, over them. I have also served onions agrodolce with warm white-bean purée as an appetizer. The onions’ sweet-tart kick also makes them an ideal accompaniment to grilled foods and cured meats.
Thinly sliced raw spring onion belongs in June salads, and not just those that are lettuce-based. Try spring onion with blanched sugar snap peas cut crosswise and tossed with mint, lemon juice, and oil. Or concoct a salad of mango, spring onion, minced red chile, and arugula.
You can also add spring onions to a light spring stew featuring the season’s new green vegetables, such as baby artichokes, fennel bulbs, English peas, and fava beans. Trim and thickly slice the larger vegetables. Start cooking the ones that take longer to soften, like the artichoke and fennel, then add the peas and fava beans after a bit. Set them in a saucepan with olive oil, just a little water, and the onion. Cook, partly covered, over gentle heat, stirring until tender and the water evaporates. Drizzle the stew with olive oil and serve warm.
Trim off the roots and peel the onion’s outer layer if damaged. If you are using only the bulb, slice off the green tops and reserve them for another use.
You can use the green stalk much like a scallion top, but first run your thumbnail along the central flower stalk that runs down the middle. The farther along the season, the more likely it is that the flower stem will be too tough to eat unless cooked. (By the way, the flower stalk is part of what is harvested as the onion scape.)
If you are cooking with the entire onion, including the tops, split it lengthwise into halves if the onion is thicker than a child’s marker; slice it into quarters if the bulb is larger than a golf ball.
Store spring onions in the refrigerator, loosely covered with a plastic bag. Since spring onions are fresh, they have high moisture content. Use them within a week — but that should be easy.
Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon. She is also the co-director of Market Chefs, an organization dedicated to inspiring and teaching consumers to cook local foods.
Chef Kelly Myers shares her expertise in the professional kitchen with the home cook, focusing on ingredients, equipment, and techniques.
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