Hue and Cry

The Onion Family

| February/March 1995


When a skillet of onions is sautéing, everyone who walks into the house asks, “What smells so good?” Whether the onions are browning quickly to garnish a steak sandwich, caramelizing slowly for a tart filling, or simply softening as the base for a soup, stew, or sauce, their ol­factory appeal is universal. Not even garlic, ­another member of the onion family, whets the appetite as satisfyingly.

Onions (Allium cepa) are essential to all of the world’s cuisines. Their bulbs come in a variety of shapes—round, flattened, torpedo—and colors—red, white, and yellow. Mature onions range in size from tiny pearl onions and the small flat onions (cipolline) that Italians pickle to giant bulbs the size of soccer balls. In addition, some do not form bulbs at all or are harvested when immature as scallions (these are also called green, spring, or bunching onions). Most of these have a white stalk and green top, but at least one cultivar, Red Beard, has a red stalk. All tend to be mild in flavor.

Each form of onion has named cultivars that are prized for their particular flavor, which may be mild, sweet, or hot. Regional and seasonal specialties include Bermuda, Maui, Sweet Spanish, Texas 1015, Vidalia, and Walla Walla. The Bermuda onion can be hot, while the rest are known for their surprising sweetness and are good eaten raw. As one can tell from some of the names, these onions are grown in particular areas where the soil and climate affect their sweetness. Add leeks (A. porrum), with their thick, white, mild-flavored stalks, and shallots (A. ascaloni­cum), whose bulbs separate into cloves with a mild garlic flavor—close relatives to garlic that are used similarly in cooking—and it is clear that the art of cooking would be unrecognizable without the versatility that these plants allow us in the kitchen.

To cook without onions is like playing a symphony without strings: it can be done, but the results do not resonate so harmoniously, for cooked onions provide a sweet and broad flavor foundation for thousands of dishes.

Raw onions are another kind of music altogether, offering sharp accent notes and piquancy. Many people who love cooked onions cannot abide them raw. It is the sulfur compounds in onions that cause their pungency as well as tears while chopping them. The strength of these compounds varies according to variety, time of year, and growing conditions of soil and climate. When the onion is cut, the sulfur compounds are changed into volatile sulfides (see “Eat Your Onions” on page 38), which make our eyes water and our noses burn. Cooking the onions makes them sweet. We’ve tried many of the folk methods to prevent crying—keeping the mouth firmly closed and holding a burned match between the teeth, for example—but have found nothing as effective as rinsing the onions under cold water immediately after cutting them. Some cooks advocate cutting onions under running water, but that can be awkward. If you are planning to use the onions raw and they still taste hot after rinsing, soak them in a bowl of cold water with a pinch of salt for fifteen to twenty minutes, then rinse again. This treatment appears to wash away most of the sulfur compounds. It can also be used for leeks and shallots if these cause you tears.

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