It’s surprising how many questions the Produce staff fields on onions. After all, they’re a staple culinary ingredient, admired by almost everyone around the world for their ability to add “just what this dish needed.” From soups, salads, sandwiches, hot dogs, brats, casseroles, omelets, curries, blossoms, rings, tacos, burritos, sauces, and on and on and on, you can find onions. They’re ubiquitous!
How often do you think about onions? When’s the last time you ate some onion? How many days has it been since you haven’t eaten an onion in some form or other? I, personally, never really think about onions; there was onion in my lunch, and I can’t remember the last day I went without! Insignificant? I think not. Can I easily answer your onion questions? Not until now!
Onions are thought to have originated in Southeast Asia, and were brought to the U.S. by English settlers. They are a member of the Alliums, and one of the oldest cultivated vegetables, going back 5000 years. Onions have played many roles throughout history. Egyptians worshipped the onion and buried them along with their Pharaohs. The onion’s circle-within-a-circle structure symbolized eternal life. Throughout Asia and the Europe, onions were valued for their medicinal qualities. From toothaches to hair loss, onions were the prescribed cure!
Today, onions are the third largest vegetable crop in the U.S. We produced nearly 80 million pounds in 2008, valued at $840 million. On average, we each ate about 18 pounds of onions last year! At the Co-op, we sold 6,500 pounds in the month of February, around 230 pounds-a-day. That’s a lot of onions!
Basically, there are three categories of onions: fresh, storage, and sweet. Storage onions are the most common of the three. They are the “workhorse” of all onions, forming the backbone of cooking all over the world. Storage onions are hot! Comparatively, storage onions have lower concentrations of sugars and water, both of which contribute to decay. Properly cured onions can be stored for months in a cool, dry, well-ventilated space, which is why they are available year round!
Typically, you can find white, red, and yellow storage onions, yellow being the most popular. Most of the questions Produce staff receive are regarding differences between these onions. “Can I substitute yellow onions in this recipe? Are the red onions hotter than the yellow onions?” Really, there’s no big difference! There may be subtle nuances among varieties, and soil conditions and climate may contribute some finer distinctions. In the end, there’s really no big difference—they’re all going to make you cry! That’s why they’re storage onions! In general, yellow onions are going to be the hottest, and white will be the mildest of the three.
Unfortunately, the same characteristics that make them ideal for storing also contribute to the heat and tears! Within the enzymes of these onions are sulfur compounds, and when disturbed, they fight back by forming volatile gases, a natural defense. These gases react with the water in your eyes to form a mild sulfuric acid, which stings the eyes. Irritated and extremely sensitive, your nerve endings send the message to your brain, and your brain sends the message to your tear ducts. The result: we struggle through the slicing and chopping of our onions with burning, teary eyes.
Unfortunately, besides wearing swimmer’s goggles, there’s not a lot you can do to remedy the tears. I have heard of and tried some crazy suggestions to no avail. My partner read that balancing half the onion on your head while preparing the other half cures the burning and tears: yeah, right! Other suggestions are holding your breath, closing your eyes, and chopping or slicing under running water. I think I’ll resort to chopping fast!
On the bright side, if you’re crying profusely over the onions you’re eating, you’re eating healthy. It’s the same compounds that make you cry that contribute to the health benefits onions have to offer. Onions are acknowledged in helping lower cholesterol levels and high blood pressure. They inhibit bone loss, increase appetite, and help to prevent certain types of cancer, specifically colon and stomach. Tears of joy!
Scallions are the most common type of fresh onions. If you’re from Wisconsin, you’ve probably noticed them on the veggie tray at family functions, or as a garnish in your Bloody Mary, however, there are other uses! Fresh onions are extensively used in a variety of cultures for purposes other than the veggie tray. Thai, Chinese, and Mexican cuisines incorporate scallions into a variety of dishes and broths. The greens provide a nice, mild onion flavor, while enhancing presentation.
Locally, you’ll find other varieties of fresh onions, often sold in bunches of three or four, resembling gigantic scallions. At the Co-op, look for torpedo and super star onions in July! Scallions can be over-wintered, and we may see them as early as mid-May, depending on the weather.
The only tears associated with sweet onions are when they’re gone! Sweet onions are high in sugar and water, and can often be eaten like an apple. They’re mild and sweet, great raw or cooked. Because of the high water and sugar content, they do not store well! Fortunately, they’re just coming into season.
The sweet onions grown in the U.S. are thought to have come from Italy and Spain, and are therefore suited to warmer, temperate climates. Georgia, Texas, and Washington produce the vast volume of sweet onions sold in the U.S., however, competition from imported varieties is on the horizon. Domestic sweet onions are planted in the fall, and are harvested in early spring. The Texas 1015 SuperSweet was named after its recommended planting date, October 15th. Like other sweet onion varieties, the 1015 must be grown in a particular geographic region to carry the trademarked name. Vidalia, perhaps the most popular variety, must be grown in one of the 13 specified counties in southern Georgia to be sold under the Vidalia name. Product goes through extensive testing to ensure quality standards are met and maintained, and growers want to protect this integrity! Some of our local growers grow these varieties, but technically, we can’t sell them under their trademarked names. If you see local sweet onions on our shelves, they’re most likely the Walla Walla variety, developed in Walla Walla, Washington. But, because they’re grown in Wisconsin, they can’t be sold using the Walla Walla name!
If supplies are steady, we’ll be offering a sweet onion on one of our Bi-Weekly Specials this month! And, if the weather’s cooperating, maybe we’ll see some ramps. These wild leeks start popping up in the spring, and we’re lucky enough to have some farmers who know where to find them! They may not be a true onion, but who cares—they’re delicious!
So, dry your eyes and peel off the layers. Spring is here! Get out and enjoy the weather! While you’re at it, stop by the Produce department to see what’s hot and check out some sweet deals!