Ode to Onions

The humble onion is among the most healthful and powerful flavoring ingredients in the kitchen. Nearly every worldwide cuisine uses them. It is miraculous how they can transform food in so many ways. Depending on the treatment, they can be sweet or savory, crisp or soft, sharp, mellow, or nutty. Thank heavens they are cheap and abundant! If there is any one thing I always have on hand (other than dark chocolate), it is onions.

Cutting an onion off-center

Onions bring a depth of flavor that makes a dish satisfying. The most commonly available are yellow, white, and red (in the bulb form), scallions, leeks, and chives (in a leafy form). While growing, onions pick up sulfur from the soil which gives them their pungent and eye-burning character.  When cut, onions release a milky substance containing sulfuric acid, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide (the latter which causes teary eyes).  A sweet onion, such as the Vidalia, is grown in soil with less sulfur. When serving onions raw it is a good idea to rinse or even soak them briefly.

Cutting onions can ruin painstakingly-applied mascara so it is best to tend to them before donning makeup.  The sulfur will dissipate quickly.  Stepping back a little from the cutting board and not holding your head directly over the cutting board will cut down on the effects. Refrigerating the onion for 30 minutes prior to use also helps. Avoid cutting through the root end (instead cut off center, see first picture) as this is where the highest concentration of sulfur resides. The flap of the still attached union layers when peeled back make a ready handle for further chopping (second picture).

Peel back the attached layers

Known as the beauty mineral, sulfur supports healthy hair, nails, and skin.  Research suggests that the compounds in onions may help reduce the risk of gastrointestinal cancers including stomach and colorectal cancer. Adding to already impressive benefits of onions, prebiotics are associated with improved immunity and mineral absorption. Onions area good source of fiber and Vitamin C, too.

In cooking, onions are typically sweated or caramelized. Sweating is done at a gentle heat in a little oil or butter without browning. The term refers to the tiny water droplets that form as the onion loses its water (onions are about 95% water). A term used in Mediterranean cuisines, soffrito, involves sweating onions and other vegetables, considered to be a mandatory first step for most soups, sauces and risottos. Caramelizing is done at a higher heat which causes a breakdown of the onion’s proteins and sugars causing browning, creating a sweet, savory, and nutty flavor. French onion soup draws its extraordinary reputation from caramelized onions.  It is very easy to learn these two techniques. If you have some experiences you’d like to share or questions let us know!

4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Deb G on March 12, 2012 at 7:48 am

    Joy I would love to see a column on the actual carmelizing process with pics – I have not been able to accomplish this relatively simple process! I think it may have to do with lack of patience more than lack of cooking skill though 😉

    I do agree on always having onions around and there is little I cook that does not have some form of them involved – much to my onion hating son-in-law’s dismay although he is coming around – he says I make them edible.

    The soffrito is a vital step in much of what I do and I use it liberally even adding it to brown rice which I find rather tasteless without the extra flavor of onions, carrots and stock to cook it.

    Onions rule!


  2. Deb, I would be delighted to post the steps for caramelizing onions with pictures – thanks for asking! In the next week or two look for ‘Ode to Onions, Part 2’. You’ve got the secret already for caramelizing – patience. This is one task that just can’t be rushed.


  3. Posted by Lois Szydlowski on March 13, 2012 at 8:27 pm

    Do you have a good French Onion Soup recipe?…Would love to have that too. Thanks


  4. We’re on the same wave length, Lois. I actually thought I’d use the caramelized onion technique to make French Onion Soup. I have an excellent recipe, look for it soon!


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