I love onions. I use them– in one form or another of the genus Allium– in just about everything I cook that isn’t dessert.
Aside from putting tears in one’s eyes, onions put the soul in soul food, the rave in the gravy, and the comfort in comfort food. Like a great rock’n’roll bass line that lends power and depth to the drums and guitars without demanding our attention, the culinary contributions of onions often remain in the background and rarely solo.
Shopping for onions can be a little confusing, so let’s sort them out–
YELLOW ONIONS, a.k.a. COOKING ONIONS, or just plain ONIONS, are the basic, go-to onions for general purposes– unless otherwise specified in more detail. They have a strong flavor and naturally-occurring tear gas that might even make your neighbors cry when you slice them. This is the onion that you will “caramelize” (more on that later.)
WHITE ONIONS are milder than the yellow version, and thus better for eating raw, as in salads or chopped as a garnish for hot dogs and burgers. I slip them (lightly sautéed) between layers of potatoes in my Potatoes au Gratin Dauphinois.
SWEET ONIONS (Spanish, Vidalia, Walla Walla, and others) have a higher sugar and water content than the basic yellow, and are also milder in flavor. Does that make them better? If you are eating them raw, yes; however, one gains little by cooking with them in place of the basic yellow. (It is easy to mistake the Spanish for the yellow, and your dish won’t noticeably suffer if you do.) The not-so-common BERMUDA ONION is another sweetie, though it must comprise its own sub-category because it comes in all colors (yellow, white, and red) and sports a distinctive flat shape.
RED (or PURPLE) ONIONS are as powerfully flavored as the yellow, and yet they often appear in salads, perhaps because of their lovely hue. They cook nicely, but their vivid color turns dull in the process. I use them in a number of recipes, from Onion Jam to Beet & Orange Salad.
PEARL ONIONS are of mild flavor and come in all different colors. Because of their size, peeling them can be a chore, one made much easier by boiling them for two minutes and then letting them cool enough to handle. Pearl onions are often browned in butter, which makes them a great side dish for, say, Thanksgiving, or else a nice addition to dishes such as beef stew. They also lend themselves to pickling.
The CIPOLLINI ONION is a relatively hard-to-find heirloom Italian variety characterized by its flat shape. Like pearl onions, they come in multiple colors and lend themselves to both pickling and browning.
The Extended Family
If you love GARLIC, then you haven’t smelled heaven until you’ve been passed by an open-bed garlic truck in Californian farm country. Since garlic is worthy of its own library (and certainly its rabid cult following) I won’t attempt to do proper justice to the “stinking rose” in a wee paragraph here; However, I’ll just add two quick points– One, be very careful not to burn it… add it later rather than early to a stir-fry or sauté; and Two, even if you refuse to spend the extra money for any other organic produce, reach for the organic garlic. In my experience it makes a significant difference.
SHALLOTS were bred as a variant of onion and have a sweeter, more sophisticated flavor. They are essential (though not indispensable– a fine line, I know) for Classical French sauce-making, from Sauce Beurre Blanc to Sauce Bordelaise. Though rarely eaten raw, they appear as such in vinaigrettes and, in particular, Sauce Mignonette for oysters.
LEEKS have long found favor in France and the British Isles as the most “vegetal” of the onion family and as a key component in all manner of soups. Slowly-simmered leeks make an elegant contribution to poached oyster dishes that would be overpowered by onions, shallots, or garlic. Please resist the temptation to use the green part for anything except the stock pot. Also, always wash leeks carefully after slicing them because sand is often trapped between their layers.
SCALLIONS (a.k.a. GREEN ONIONS) are visually the close kin of LEEKS, but we use them quite differently. Scallions appear in all manner of Asian cuisine, and they seem to get on well with ginger and garlic to season a wide variety of meat and other dishes. Unlike leeks, the scallion is edible well up into its green stalk. I am old enough to recall when shallots were not widely available, and scallions were often used in substitution.
And finally, CHIVES lack a useful bulb, so their culinary contribution is mostly confined to using crosswise snippings of their stems to garnish everything from the sour cream on our baked potatoes to rich, creamy soups. As such, chives are often considered (rightly or not) an herb. Though milder than all its relatives, chives can make a useful contribution to soups and stocks… especially if, like me, you have some growing wild on your property and you don’t feel like driving to the store.
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Exploding Two Myths About “Caramelizing” Onions
It Cannot Be Done Quickly.
Recipe after recipe LIES about how long it takes. (This article examines the issue beautifully.) Plan on 45 minutes to “caramelize” onions. And while you’re at it, you might as well make way more than you need and save them for next time. They keep well in the fridge.
“Caramelization” Isn’t Entirely Correct.
We see it in recipes all the time… “caramelize onions.” However, there are two distinct types of non-enzymatic chemical reactions that result in browning– Caramelization and the Maillard reaction. Caramelization occurs at higher temperatures (>300ºF) and involves the conversion of sugars into more complex molecules. The Maillard reaction involves the interaction of sugars and proteins and occurs at 284ºF. (When meat slowly roasts, it forms a knee-weakening aroma and an unbelievably delicious brown crust– both products of a Maillard reaction.) There is enough protein in onions to foster a Maillard reaction, and that accounts for much of the browning. The onion’s sugars will indeed caramelize, albeit toward the end of the cooking process. All in all, it would be more accurate to say that one is “browning” onions rather than “caramelizing” them.