Learn About Onions

Author: Chef Toby

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What are Onions?

Onion is a type of vegetable that is part of the Allium family of plants. While there are many varieties of allium vegetables related to the onion, like green onions, shallots, and leeks, we will be referring to the round onion. Onions come in 4 main varieties:  yellow, white, red, and sweet onions. They are root vegetables that are very easy to grow and are used in practically every cuisine around the world. They range in size, from the size of a marble, up to that of a softball. Onions have papery layers on the outside that must be peeled back and removed prior to preparing. At one side of the onion, there is a cluster of roots from where the onion was growing that should also be removed. 

What do Onions taste like?

Different varieties of onion have slight flavor variations. Yellow onions are strong in flavor, while white, red, and sweet onions have a more mild flavor. Onions have a complex and delicious taste that can be altered depending on how it is cooked. Raw onions can be pungent, slightly spicy, and have a “bite” to them, while onions that are cooked caramelize and have a sweet, savory flavor. 

How do you eat Onions?

Onions are typically used as flavoring agents to other foods like soups, salads, tacos, salsas, braises, and stir-fries, but they can also be the main ingredient to certain dishes as well. They can be deep-fried and eaten as onion rings, which is commonly served as an appetizer or side at American restaurants and fast-food restaurants. French Onion soup is another common onion dish, which is made by combining caramelized onions with beef broth and seasonings. Raw onions are commonly diced up and used to top soups like chili, or combined with tomato and cilantro to make pico de gallo, a popular condiment in Mexican cuisine. Grilled onions are great to add sweetness and additional flavor to hamburgers and hotdogs. 

Pickled Onions in pickling liquid
Pickled onions in pickling liquid.

Where can you buy Onions?

Because onions grow easily in almost any climate, most varieties are available year-round at any grocery store that sells produce. 

How do you store Onions?

Raw whole onions can last up to three months in a cool and dry place, like a pantry. Onions that have been peeled, chopped, or sliced can last in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. 

Fun Fact About Onions:

The ancient Egyptians worshiped onions! They believed that the onions’ round shape and layers symbolized eternal life and would use them during burial ceremonies for the Pharaohs!  

Did you know?

When onions are cut, they release a chemical that irritates the eyes and causes them to tear up. Some onions will cause more tears than others, but usually, onions with more pungent, strong flavors induce crying the easiest.

Onions being sliced on a cutting board.

Recipes Using Onions

French Onion Soup 

This classic soup is made by cutting onions into slices and cooking them down with olive oil or butter until the onions are soft, brown, and sweet. Then, herbs are added like thyme and oregano, along with beef stock. Simmer until the soup is thick, and ladle the soup into individual serving sized baking dishes or ramekins. Top the soups with sliced french bread, shredded gruyere cheese, and broil in the oven until the cheese is melted.

Grilled Onions 

Grilled onions are a great way to develop the sweet flavors in onions and can be added to a variety of foods, like hamburgers, sandwiches, hot dogs, and others. To make them, start by heating olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan. The onions can be cut in any shape to saute depending on the application, but we like diced or thinly sliced onions. Add the onions to the hot pan and cook until the onions are very soft and brown. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Onion Rings 

Onion rings are a classic dinner food, and a great way to enjoy onions. To make them, cut a sweet onion into 3/4 inch slices and set aside. Put some flour on the onions and toss to coat evenly. In a large bowl, combine egg, oil, milk, and whisk for one minute. Add in flour, salt, baking powder, and paprika, and stir until the batter is smooth. Heat vegetable oil in a deep skillet, about to inches deep, for frying. Dip the floured onions into the batter. Place the onions into the oil and fry on each side until the batter is puffed up and the coating is brown. Serve the onion rings with ketchup or ranch dressing.

Pico De Gallo

Pico de gallo is a classic salsa condiment used in dozens of Mexican dishes. To make it, dice the white onion, tomato, and cilantro into 1/4 inch pieces. Combine the ingredients in a large bowl and season with salt and lime juice. Refrigerate the salsa before serving to enhance the flavors.


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