The allium family includes everything from the delicate chive to the hardy leek to the eye-stinging yellow onion. “Spring” onions refer to the greener, milder types that were traditionally harvested in the spring: green onions or scallions. The more-familiar types–red, yellow, white, Spanish–are “storage” or “dry” onions. There isn’t as wide of a gulf in flavor between a red or white onion as there is between garlic and chives, but it’s still worth exploring the different kinds of dry onions so that you’ll know how to use them better in recipes:
-The small yellow and white onions (often labeled as “cooking onions”) are the most potent. Unless you absolutely love the taste of onion, I wouldn’t advise using these raw. Luckily, their small size makes them perfect for cooking–one onion is usually the right amount to add to a batch of marinara sauce or a pot of chili.
-Red onions are tricky–they can be mildly sweet or as sharp as the cooking onions, which means that if you do use them raw in a salad, you probably want to slice them very, very fine. Their color, too, is a double-edged sword: it’s a beautiful purple on the plate, but it can also turn your white sink, clothes, or counter into a not-so-welcome hue. A cooked red onion turns rather purplish-brown, which may or may not complement your dish. (Pickling them, however, keeps them crunchy and pink.) The good thing about the vivid color of a red onion is that you can toss the skins into a pot of boiling water to naturally dye your hard-boiled eggs as they cook.
-Spanish and Bermuda onions are larger and more mild than their smaller cousins. They’re great to grill and roast, and I think their smoother flavor makes a richer French Onion Soup. The only difficult thing is slicing them–you’ll need a big knife!
-Pearl onions are the tiny ones you’ll find sold in bags at your grocery store. They’re so small that you can add them whole to soups, stews, and baked entreés. Peeling them may seem like a chore, but it really isn’t so bad as long as you pour boiling water over them and let them cool before attempting it. Cooked or pickled pearl onions also make great garnishes.
-Then there are the sweet onions: Vidalia, Walla Walla, and Maui. These can easily be eaten raw on salads and in sandwiches. Sauteéing them will result in a very sweet, carmelized flavor.
-Shallots have a light-brown, papery skin and a taste that’s somewhere between garlic and onion. French cuisine in particular tends to favor their unique flavor. If you have a recipe that calls for shallots and you don’t have them, you can substitute green onions in a pinch–just be sure to only use the white part, which has a more pronounced flavor than the more-tender green stalks.
-Green onions are extremely versatile: use the raw green shoots for a delicate, almost chive-like accent, or cook them for a slightly-chewy texture. The white part can be sauteéd alone (and is also a substitute for leeks) or with the shoots…or you can slice the white part into thin, decorative rounds and leave it raw. Draw a knife a few times through the shoots–starting at the white part and going to the end of the green–to make an eye-catching, ribbon-like garnish.
Of course, the problem many of us have with onions is the tear factor. You can make chopping an onion a little more bearable if you have a very sharp knife–the more dull the blade, the more it smashes the flesh of the onion, and the more sulfur it will release–but the best way to deal with an onion is to quickly slice it, put it on the other side of the kitchen and away from your workspace, and clean your knife and cutting board. If you’re going the cook the onion, you might want to cut it right before cooking since the heat will take away the tears. If you’re going to use it raw, you might want to put the sliced onion into a bowl of cold water and then drain before using. (This will also tame the taste a bit.) Those of us who wear contacts are lucky–my eyes don’t sting when I’m wearing mine and dealing with onions. Finally, a good side effect of having bad vision!
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