Onions: A Vegetable and an Herb

Onions are most commonly thought of as a vegetable, but they are also an herb!

Medley of Onions

Related to the lily, this underground bulb is prized around the world for the magic it makes in a multitude of dishes with its pungent flavor and odor. There are two main classifications of onion-green onions (also called scallions) and dry onions, which are simply mature onions with a juicy flesh covered with dry, papery skin.

Dry onions come in a wide range of sizes, shapes and flavors. Among those that are mild flavored are the white or yellow Bermuda onion, available March through June; the larger, more spherical Spanish onion, which is usually yellow skinned (but can be white) and in season from August to May; and the red or Italian onion, which is available year-round.

Do Onions Fight Cancer?

Onions may make you cry, but there is an upside to those tears. The same substances that give onions their pungency are believed to help fight cancer.

A study from the National Cancer Institute found that individuals who ate the most allium vegetables (onions, scallions, garlic, chives and leeks) had a nearly 50 percent lower cancer risk than those who ate the least. Some laboratory studies have shown that the natural substances in these vegetables have anti-tumor effects. Other studies link the vegetables with a lower risk of cancer of the colon, stomach, prostate, esophagus, breast and endometrium (lining of the uterus).

Onion Nutrition

Onions are low in calories yet add abundant flavor to a wide variety of foods.

With only 30 calories per serving (1/2 cup), onions are:

  • Sodium free
  • Fat free
  • Cholesterol free
  • Provide fiber, vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, and other nutrients.

Onions, an underground bulb related to the lily, are prized in most cultures for the flavor and piquancy they add to a wide variety of dishes. Because onions are available year round, they can be used in many dishes in all seasons.

Onions come in many sizes, shapes and flavors. Mild-flavored onions include the white or yellow Bermuda onion, yellow Spanish onion, red onion and pearl onion. The stronger-flavored globe onion can have a yellow, red, or white skin. Special varieties include the sweet Vidalia onion from Georgia.

Selecting Onions

Most onions are sold loose by the pound, although some types are sold in bags or small boxes. Look for onions that feel dry and solid all over, with no soft spots or sprouts. The neck should be tightly closed and the outer skin should have a crackly feel and a shiny appearance. Onions should smell mild, even if their flavor is not. Avoid selecting onions with green areas or dark patches.

Storing Onions

Onions should be kept in a cool, dry open space away from bright light. Onions do best in an area that allows for air circulation. Because onions absorb moisture, do not store onions below the sink. Also, do not place onions near potatoes because potatoes give off moisture and produce a gas that causes onions to spoil more quickly. Spring/summer onions usually store for about two weeks and storage onions for about three to four weeks.

Varieties of Onions

Onions came in a variety of sizes, colors and shapes. They are often broken down into three categories: spring/summer, storage, and pearl onions.

Spring/summer onions are grown primarily from fall to spring in warm weather areas and have a soft flesh and a mild or sweet taste. These varieties are generally shipped right after harvesting.

Storage onions have a firm flesh, dry, crackly outer skins and have a pungent flavor. After a brief period of drying, these onions are stored for several months before shipping.

Pearl onions are often called white onions and are densely planted to make the onions smaller. There are no nutritional differences among these onion types.

Onions also come in three colors: yellow, red, and white. Approximately 88 percent of the onion crop is devoted to yellow onion production, with about 7 percent red onions and 5 percent white onions.

Onion Health Benefits

OnionsResearch shows that onions may help guard against many chronic diseases. That is probably because onions contain generous amounts of a flavonoid called quercetin. Other sources are tea and apples, but research shows that absorption of quercetin from onions is twice that from tea and more than three times that from apples.

Studies have shown that quercetin protects against cataracts, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

In addition, onions contain a variety of other naturally occurring chemicals known as organosulfur compounds that have been linked to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Onions Aid Detox

Onions thin and cleanse the blood and lower LDL cholesterol without lowering HDL cholesterol. Onions also help detoxify the respiratory tract and help fight asthma, bronchitis, hay fever, and diabetes. Onions help cleanse the body of viruses and the intestines of harmful bacteria.

Onion Facts

The stronger-flavored globe onions can have yellow, red or white skins. They can range from 1 to 4 inches in diameter and in flavor from mildly pungent to quite sharp. Among the special onion varieties are three exceedingly juicy specimens. The Maui onion, hailing-as its name implies-from the Hawaiian island of the same name, is sweet, mild and crisply moist. It can range in color from white to pale yellow and is usually shaped like a slightly flattened sphere.

An onion plant lives for only two years.

The Maui onion’s season is from April to July. Vidalia onions are the namesake of Vidalia, Georgia, where they thrive. At their best, these large, pale yellow onions are exceedingly sweet and juicy. Vidalia onions are usually available from May through June only in the regions where grown or by mail order.

The state of Washington is the source of Walla Walla onions, named after the city of the same name. Large, round and golden, they’re in season from June to September but are usually available outside their growing area only by mail order.

Oso Sweet onions hail from South America and, as their name suggests, are extremely succulent and sweet and, in fact, contain almost 50 percent more sugar than Vidalias. They’re available in specialty produce markets from January through March. Another import is the Rio Sweet onion, which is predictably sweet and available from October through December. Tiny pearl onions are mild-flavored and about the size of a small marble. They can be cooked (and are often creamed) and served as a side dish or pickled and used as a condiment or garnish (as in the gibson cocktail).

Boiling onions are about 1 inch in diameter and mildly flavored. They’re cooked as a side dish, used in stews and pickled. When buying onions, choose those that are heavy for their size with dry, papery skins with no signs of spotting or moistness. Avoid onions with soft spots.

Store in a cool, dry place with good air circulation for up to 2 months (depending on their condition when purchased). Humidity breeds spoilage in dry onions. Once cut, an onion should be tightly wrapped, refrigerated and used within 4 days.

Dried or freeze-dried onion by-products include onion powder (ground dehydrated onion), onion salt (onion powder and salt), onion flakes and onion flavoring cubes. Onions are also sold canned or pickled (usually pearl onions) and frozen (whole or chopped).

Onions contain a fair amount of vitamin C with traces of other vitamins and minerals.

Onions should be dry and hard. Avoid onions with wet necks, this indicates decay. Also, avoid onions that have sprouted. Onions can be stored at either room temperature or refrigerated.

To keep onions on hand for two or three months without sprouting, remove them from their mesh or plastic sack and put them in a brown paper bag on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator.

To shed fewer tears when slicing onions, cut the root off last, refrigerate before slicing and peel them under cold water.

When cutting onions, place a piece of bread on the tip of the knife to absorb the fumes.

When cutting an onion, control your tears by starting at the top. The sulfuric compounds that make you cry are concentrated in the root end. When you are using only half an onion, use the top half. The root end will stay fresher longer.

After slicing onions, wash your hands in cold water, then rub them with salt.

Salt or vinegar will remove onion smells from your hands.

If you chew gum while peeling onions you may not cry. Try it!

Store onions in a glass jar leaving the root intact and they should keep for weeks.

Varieties of onions include pearl, yellow globe, Spanish, white globe, boiling, large whites, red globe, shallots and large reds.

If you need only half of an onion, use the top half. The root will stay fresh longer in the refrigerator.

To prolong the life of onions, wrap individual green onions in a sheet of aluminum foil.

Onion Folklore

The number of skins on an onion at harvest tells how cold the coming winter will be. If the layers are few and thin, the winter will be mild. If the layers are numerous and thick, the winter will be fierce.

An Old Onion Remedy For Fever

Chop onions finely and wear to bed in socks. Fever will be drawn to the feet and the onions will cook.

Onion Health Benefits

Preparing Onions

Today, onions are used in a variety of dishes and rank sixth among the world’s leading vegetable crops. Onions not only provide flavor; they also provide health-promoting phytochemicals as well as nutrients.

Onions may be eaten raw or cooked. Onions should be peeled before preparing, except when baking. Onions may be boiled, braised, baked, microwaved, or sauteed.

Before sauteing onions, pour boiling water over them then pat dry; they cook faster this way.

Yellow onions are full-flavored and are a reliable standby for cooking almost anything. Yellow onions turn a rich, dark brown when cooked and give French Onion Soup its tangy sweet flavor. The red onion, with its wonderful color, is a good choice for fresh uses or in grilling and char broiling. White onions are the traditional onion used in classic Mexican cuisine. They have a golden color and sweet flavor when sauteed.

Onion Rings: Make ’em Healthy!

Onion rings are so popular there is a “day” for them! June 22 is “National Onion Rings Day”.

Onions are a good source of vitamin C, are fat free, cholesterol free, and sodium free. But when we fry them in oil … well, let’s just say we’re pretty much losing the health benefits. Fried onion rings aren’t a great “diet” food; however, you can enjoy them by giving up the frying and baking them instead.

The origin of fried onions is obscure, but here’s a recipe that appeared in the New York Times in 1933, on November 5, 1933, at the height of the Depression.

“Cut large onions into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Separate slices into rings. Dip rings into milk, dredge with flour… Fry onion rings until brown.”

Quick pickled onions: Thinly slice red onions. Marinate in white vinegar for ten minutes and enjoy!

Welsh Bunching Onions:

Bunching onion is a perennial with stately clusters of stalks. Use them in the same manner you would use other onions. To grow, harvest from the outside of the bunch; the center will keep producing offshoots.

The Antique Onion

Onions are interesting and date way back in time for more than just a food – the onion has been used medicinally since antiquity for:

  • The inside of an onion skin placed on cuts and scratches acted as a wound ointment.
  • An onion placed on a wasp or bee sting soon took the pain away.
  • A mixture of onions and sugar in water was a cure for whooping cough. Rubbed on the head it was believed a cure for baldness.

Onions were also thought to repel evil spirits, and bunches of onions were often hung outside the door or over the manger in the barn to keep witches and bad fairies away.

  • Onions were also used to predict the weather:
  • Onion skin, very thin, Mild winter’s coming in.
  • Onion skin, thick and tough, Coming winter cold and rough.

Historical Tidbit:

“I will not move my armies without onions”. –General Ulysses S. Grant, in a dispatch to the U.S. War Department

Onion Trivia

  • According to an old English Rhyme, the thickness of an onion skin can help predict the severity of the winter. Thin skins mean a mild winter is coming while thick skins indicate a rough winter ahead.
  • If you eat onions you can get rid of onion breath by eating parsley.
  • Americans eat 18.8 pounds of fresh and storage type onions on average each year.

Onion Prose

“For it is every Cook’s Opinion, No savory Dish without an Onion,
And, lest your Kissing should be spoil’d Your Onions must be thoroughly boiled:
Or else you may spare, Your Mistress a Share,
The Secret will never be known; She cannot discover
The Breath of a Lover, But think it as sweet as her own.”

–Jonathan Swift’s translation of Martial’s “Xenia 18”

“Onion skins very thin, mild winter coming in.
Onion skins very tough, coming winter very rough.”

-old English rhyme

For this is every cook’s opinion, No savoury dish without an onion;
But lest your kissing should be spoiled, Your onions should be thoroughly boiled.

-Jonathon Swift, Irish satirist

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