Revered by ancient people, this edible bulb is full of health benefits.
Rachel Albert-Matesz is a freelance nutrition journalist and healthy cooking coach from Toledo, Ohio. More than 180 of her articles have appeared in national and regional magazines and newspapers.
Onions have been held in high esteem throughout recorded history and used in nearly every cuisine around the globe. They are one of the oldest known vegetables, probably among the first cultivated crops, are easy to grow, do well in a wide range of soils and climates, are less perishable than many other vegetables, and grow wild in many regions of the world. Food historians estimate that people have been sowing and reaping onions for at least 5,000 years and that our ancestors feasted on wild onions for thousands of years before the invention of farming.
Ancient onion lovers
The onion’s legacy can be traced back to 3500 b.c. in Egypt. An inscription found on one of the great pyramids, built in 2500 b.c., details the amount of silver required to purchase onions, radishes, and garlic to sustain the laborers and their motivation.
Onions were not only eaten, but also worshipped, depicted on banquet tables, and offered on the altars of the great gods. To the ancient Egyptians, onions symbolized eternal life (note the onion’s structure of circles within circles), and were customarily included in funeral offerings. Pharaohs were buried with onions attached to various body parts, perhaps to ward off evil spirits in the afterlife. Onions were used to alleviate more than 8,000 ailments.
A Greco-Roman denominator
The Greeks esteemed onions. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” and he counted onions as a medicine. The first-century physician Dioscorides used onions therapeutically. Greek athletes reportedly ate pounds of onions, drank onion juices, and anointed their flesh with onion liquid prior to competing in the Olympic games.
Romans revered onions by growing them in market gardens, transporting them on journeys, and depicting them in ancient mosaics dating back to the second century a.d. The early Romans believed onions could cure vision problems, induce sleep, and heal mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery, and even lumbago. Emperor Nero, an avid onion and leek lover, claimed onions improved his singing voice and male prowess.
Onions for all nations
Architects have modeled mosques (the Great Mosque of Tamerlane, built in fifteenth-century Persia, and the Taj Mahal in India) and monuments (such as St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow) on the onion bulb.
Charaka, the famous Indian medical treatise from the sixth century b.c., celebrates onions as a potent diuretic, an aid to digestion, and a contributor to the health of the heart, eyes, and joints.
Asians have similarly used onions. Onions have been used in China
for at least 5,000 years—to increase urination, expel phlegm, treat coughs, colds, wounds, ulcers, constipation, parasites, vaginitis, intestinal problems, and hypertension.
In the Middle Ages, onions were one of the main vegetables consumed (along with beans and cabbage). They were also prescribed to alleviate headaches and hair loss. In addition, onions were used as a form of monetary exchange, as rent payment, and for wedding gifts. Since then, onions have been used to treat bee stings, bug bites, and used—in World War II Russia—as an antiseptic in battle.
An old wives’ tale touts onions as an ideal mouthwash. That might be because raw onions are known to kill germs and ward off colds.
An onion a day
What shall we make of this lore? Can an onion a day really keep the doctor at bay?
Surprisingly, it may. Modern research supports a surprising array of ancient onion-related health claims.
What’s the secret? Onions contain at least twenty-five known active disease-fighting compounds. Like garlic, onions possess antibacterial, antifungal, and immune-enhancing properties—which may explain their efficacy in warding off colds, relieving upset stomach, and resolving other gastrointestinal imbalances.
Onions appear to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, inhibit growth of cancer cells, reduce stroke risk, and aid in preventing heart disease.According to researchers from the American Heart Association, avid onion eating can help prevent coronary thrombosis and hypertension. Researcher Victor Gurewich, M.D., of Tufts University, says one yellow onion a day may raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol by as much as 30 percent. Oddly, red onions don’t possess the same potency.
“One medium-sized onion contains only thirty-eight calories and as much vitamin C as two apples, one banana, one tomato, or one orange,” reports food historian Martin Elkhort. “Onions are one of the ten most popular vegetables in the country,” adds Elkort. So, an onion a day is a decent way to increase your odds for a healthy, balanced life.
The onion’s most potent compounds appear to be sulfur and quercetin, antioxidants that neutralize free radicals in the body, protecting cell membranes from damage. Onions are the richest dietary source of quercetin, beating out red wine and tea. (Yellow onions top red onions in the antioxidant race, and white onions are far behind.) Unlike wine, onions won’t reduce your reflexes nor will they get you arrested, so you can safely overindulge.
Raw or cooked?
Both raw and cooked onions have benefits. Cooking softens the bite, sweetens the pot, multiplies your options, concentrates the volume and nutrients, and allows you to eat more onions in a single sitting. Cooking reduces sulfur compounds slightly, though it leaves the quercetin intact.
Oil and dry heat cause onions to caramelize, creating a rich, amazingly sweet taste—-a fantastic accompaniment for fish, poultry, or lean meat, or addition to salads (see the salad recipe below).
I often make a double batch to ensure enough to serve for a few days running. Leftovers taste great chilled or warmed briefly in a heat-proof dish in a toaster oven.
Try different types of onions, herbs, and spices.
2 pounds onions such as Spanish, yellow, white, Vidalia, Walla Walla, or Maui
4 shallots, peeled, or 1/2 to 1 head garlic, separated into cloves and peeled (optional)
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried, crushed rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried, crushed sage
Preheat oven to 400°F. Trim the very ends off of the onions, leaving some of the root end; halve from top to bottom, then peel off and discard the skin. With the onion halves cut-side down, halve again lengthwise into wedges, leaving a section of the root end attached to each piece so they don’t fall apart. Slice the shallots in half. Note: If roasting for use in salads, after quartering the onions, cut the halves in half or thirds crosswise, to make 1-inch cubes. Quarter shallots if using for salad.
Scatter the onions in a 9-inch square heavy pan or baking dish that’s glass, stainless steel, ceramic, or cast iron. (Use a 13¥9¥2-inch pan for a double batch.) Add the garlic or shallots if desired, then the oil, salt, pepper if desired, and herbs. Stir to coat. Transfer to preheated oven. Roast uncovered for 40 to 50 minutes, until lightly golden, tender, and easily pierced with a knife. Stir or shake the pan every 15 minutes to facilitate even cooking. Serve immediately or refrigerate in a covered nonreactive container or jar. Use within four days.
In a hurry? Slice the onions paper thin, toss them in the roasting pan with olive oil and seasonings, then cut the garlic cloves in quarters and sprinkle over the onions. Roast as above, stirring every 10 to 12 minutes.
Remove from the oven when onions are tender and aromatic—about 30 minutes.
Roasted Pearl Onions: Use 2 pints of walnut or pearl onions. Plunge into a pot of boiling water for 1 minute, drain in a colander, then rinse under cold water to loosen the peels. Cut off the ends and peel the onions, leaving them whole. Prepare as above, but arrange them in a large roasting pan that will hold them in one layer, or use two 9- to 10-inch pans.
Salad with Roasted Onions and Sweet Peppers
This sensational salad makes a great side dish, although I often serve it topped with sliced chicken, turkey, beef, or tuna as a main course. Buy salad greens in quantity, wash, and keep some stashed in a salad spinner; roast vegetables regularly; and always cook enough meat for intentional leftovers. You might skip the dressing, then drizzle each serving with meat-pan juices, lemon juice, or balsamic vinegar and lightly toasted walnuts.
2 red or gold bell peppers
8 cups packed lettuce (such as a combination of romaine, arugula, radicchio, or a packaged salad mix), washed, dried, and sliced thinly or torn into 11/2-inch pieces
11/2 to 2 cups Roasted Onions
1/4 cup capers, rinsed and drained
1 cup minced celery and celery tops
1/2 cup Herb Lemonette Dressing
Preheat oven to 400°F. Rinse the bell peppers. Cut them in half and remove the stems, cores, and seeds. Arrange the peppers on a lightly oiled baking sheet, skin-side up. Roast uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until the peppers are tender and the edges have begun to shrivel. Cut the peppers into long, thin strips or bite-sized pieces. Transfer to a jar or other container, cover, and refrigerate.
Combine the salad greens, roasted onions, peppers, capers, and celery in a large (3-quart) bowl. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Just before serving, drizzle half of the dressing over the entire salad, toss to coat, taste, then add additional dressing or black pepper as desired.
Add 1/4 to 1/2 cup lightly salted walnuts, pecans, pistachios, macadamia or pine nuts, or chopped black olives to the salad.
Use bottled, roasted bell peppers sliced into strips, or raw bell peppers, seeded and sliced. Or substitute 1 cup sliced radishes.
Herb Lemonette Dressing
Makes 3/4 cup
In this recipe—a takeoff of vinaigrette—lemon juice replaces vinegar. Citrus juice is less acidic than vinegar, so use 1 part citrus juice to 2 parts oil. If you love the taste of walnuts, look for virgin-pressed walnut oil (sold in protective dark bottles). Flora and Omega Nutrition make such oils, which are sold under refrigeration in natural food stores or by mail from these companies.
Note: To keep olive oil dressings from thickening and becoming too hard in refrigeration, store the dressing in the side door, rather than the back of the refrigerator, or remove the bottle from the refrigerator 1/2 hour before serving.
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/4 cup lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
11/2 teaspoons crushed, dried basil
1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon sea salt (optional)
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus a little more if needed, or 1/4 cup olive oil plus 1/4 cup virgin-pressed flaxseed or walnut oil
Combine the lemon zest and lemon juice in a blender or small food processor. Add the pepper, herbs, and sea salt if desired. Mix briefly, then add the oil a little at a time, blending until an emulsion is formed. Add herbs or spices as desired. The mixture will separate after 5 to 10 minutes, so use immediately or pour into the smallest jar you can find (to keep oxygen out, which increases spoilage of flax oil), cover tightly, and refrigerate. Shake or mix well before serving.
Refrigerate and use within one week for best flavor.
To make Shallot Lemonette, increase pepper to 1/2 teaspoon. Add 2 minced shallots and 11/2 teaspoons crushed, dried basil. Omit the oregano and parsley.
Grilled Onion Rings
Grilled onions are unusually sweet, slightly smoky, and versatile. They’re crisper than roasted onions, so enjoy them served over burgers, salmon fillets, lamb chops, omelets, or green salads. If you don’t have a covered grill or porch (for winter grilling), cook the onions in a grill pan or indoor electric grill.
4 medium to large red onions
Olive oil, to coat
1/2 to 1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon coarsely ground, dried thyme
Cut off the ends of the onions, then peel back and remove the skin. Slice the onions into rounds, about 1/3-inch thick. (Thin slices are apt to stick, burn, or fall through the grill grates.)
Brush both sides of the onion slices with olive oil and dust with sea salt, pepper, and thyme. Place on a heated grill grate or in a grill pan and cook approximately 6 minutes per side, or until onions darken around the edges and the rings start to separate. Remove from the grill (or pan) and serve warm.
Pickled Onion Rings
These sweet and delicious onion rings take minutes to assemble. They’ll be ready to eat within 8 to 10 hours, although they are even sweeter after pickling for 3 days. Thin slices are perfect on top of green salads, burgers, sandwiches, or baked sweet potatoes. They’re also great tossed with steamed broccoli and pesto. Brown rice vinegar is less acidic than regular vinegar or apple cider vinegar. It produces the best flavor for this recipe. For a similarly sweet taste, you can use balsamic vinegar. If apple cider vinegar is used, these pickles will be tart rather than sweet.
4 cups thinly sliced sweet onions such as Walla Walla or
Vidalia, separated into rings
2 tablespoons brown rice vinegar
1/2 to 2/3 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon dill weed or crushed tarragon leaves
Arrange the onion rings in a nonreactive bowl. Mix the vinegar and sea salt and spoon over the onions. Mix well, rubbing the salt into the onions. Add the dill or tarragon and stir. Press the onions into the bottom of bowl; top with a saucer that fits inside the rim of the bowl with 1/4-inch room to spare around the sides. Weight the plate down with a heavy jug or pitcher filled with water. Press for 8 to 10 hours or overnight at room temperature. The liquid should rise up to cover the onions within several hours.
Cover and refrigerate the onions and liquid. Use within 1 week.
Split Pea And Onion Soup
Serves 4 to 6
Creamy pea soup is a snap to make. You can make it vegetarian, or with poultry stock. For a smoky taste without ham or bacon, add chipotlé (smoked, dried jalapeno pepper powder) and liquid hickory smoke seasoning.
1 cup split peas
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock or broth, or filtered water
1 medium to large onion, diced, or 1 tender medium to large leek, sliced
1/2 cup diced celery
1/2 cup diced carrot or rutabaga
1 cup cauliflower cut into 1-inch pieces
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1/2 teaspoon finely ground sea salt
3/4 teaspoon crushed, dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed, dried marjoram
1/4 teaspoon ground chipotlé or black pepper
1 teaspoon liquid hickory smoke seasoning (optional)
2 scallions (green onions), trimmed and minced (for garnish)
Rinse the split peas; drain in a strainer. Add to a 2-quart saucepan with the bay leaves and stock, broth, or water. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer until tender, about 1 hour. While the peas simmer, chop the onion, celery, carrot or rutabaga, cauliflower, and garlic.
When the peas are tender, add the onion and other vegetables, herbs, spices, and sea salt. Add liquid smoke seasoning if desired. Stir, cover, and bring to a low boil. Reduce the heat and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
Remove bay leaves. For a creamy texture, process the soup in a blender or food processor then add it back to the pot. Stir, taste, and adjust seasonings as desired.
Ladle into soup bowls, garnish with minced scallions, and serve warm.