Last summer, in a post titled, “Baby Steps, Baby Bites,” I blogged about how I taught myself to like onions. As I’ve gotten to know my new friend the onion, I’ve learned that it is not a one-size fits all. There are many varieties of onion and each one brings something different to the party. Some are sharp and some are sweet. Some are best when cooked while others are best eaten raw. They all bring a ton of flavor and are loaded with health benefits. Here are a few reasons to eat more onions.
For centuries, onions have been used to reduce inflammation and heal infections.
Onions contain chromium, which assists in regulating blood sugar.
Raw onion lowers the production of bad cholesterol (LDL), keeping your heart healthy.
Onions have been studied extensively in relation to cancer. Their beneficial and preventative effects are likely due in part to their rich organic sulfur compounds. How these compounds inhibit cancer is unknown, but possible hypotheses include the inhibition of tumor growth and genetic mutation.
Onions are also a source of the strong antioxidant vitamin C that helps combat the formation of free radicals known to cause cancer. In addition, adequate intake of vitamin C is needed for the building and maintenance of collagen, which provides structure to skin and hair.
Folate, found in onions, may help with depression by preventing an excess of homocysteine from forming in the body, which can prevent blood and other nutrients from reaching the brain. Excess homocysteine interferes with the production of the feel-good hormones serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which regulate not only mood, but also sleep and appetite as well.
Now that we know some of the health benefits of onions, how do we choose the right one for the dish?
A shallot looks like a small, elongated onion with a copper, reddish, or gray skin. When peeled, shallots separate into cloves like garlic. Shallots have a more delicate garlic-like flavor. They are sweet with a little spiciness, and great for an egg dish, vinaigrette, or as a garnish.
Scallions aka Green Onions
Scallions and green onions are actually the same thing. They are either harvested very young from the regular bulb-forming onions we are familiar with, or they can come from other varieties that actually never form bulbs. Scallions are long, with a white stem end that does not bulge out. They have a mild bite that is not as intense as regular onions (the white parts contain the most intense flavor). They can be used raw or cooked, and while some cooks discard the darker green tops, the whole thing can be eaten, and is often used in Asian cooking.
Spring onions look similar to scallions, but have small onion bulbs at the base. These onions come from the varieties that produce bulbs and are basically more mature versions of scallions. They are planted as seedlings in the late fall and then harvested the next spring, thus the word “spring” in the name. Spring onions are sweeter and mellower than regular onions, but the greens are more intense in flavor than scallions. The bulbs can be red or white, depending on the variety, and while they can be used in much the same way as regular bulb onions, they are great grilled or roasted whole.
White Onions are the crunchiest. They have high water content, the sharpest flavor, and are mostly used in Mexican cooking. Use for salsas, chutneys and stir fries.
Red onions have a mild flavor and are best eaten raw. They are crisp and add color. Use for guacamole, salsa, pickling, salads, and on burgers and in sandwiches.
The most well known sweet onions are Vidalia and Walla Walla (pictured). They are sweet and mild yet still deliver great onion flavor. They have thick layers, which are best for frying. Use for onion rings, gratins, and roasting.
Yellow Onions are full-flavored and are the best all-around cooking onion. They are sharp and spicy, which mellows when cooked. They caramelize well because of their high sugar content. Use for meat roasts, braised meat dishes, sauces, soups, and stews.
Working with Onions
According to the National Onion Association, to reduce tearing when cutting onions, first chill the onions for 30 minutes. Then, cut off the top and peel the outer layers leaving the root end intact. (The root end has the highest concentration of sulphuric compounds that make your eyes tear.) You can also rub canola or olive oil on your knives before cutting onions to prevent your eyes from tearing.
How to Cut an Onion
Cut in half through the stem and root. Cut off the stem end, but leave the root intact. It holds the rings of the onion together.
When slicing, start at the stem end (that’s the end you cut off), cut across the rings, working toward the root end.
When dicing, make slices perpendicular to the board from root end to stem end, cutting from just before the root but not through. Keep the root intact.
Then make slices parallel to the board from stem end to root end, cutting to just before the root but not through. Keep the root intact.
Then slice across the rings.
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