All my life I have disliked onions and avoided them at all costs. But now, in my mid-40s, I’ve discovered that they aren’t so bad, at least if they are cooked (raw onions still make me shudder in horror).
So teach me about them. There are different colors, does it matter which I use? Do they have different flavors or textures? Are some kinds better for some dishes? Is there anything I should know about storing or preparing them?
I like to take an onion, peel it, cut it into very thick slices (then half or quarter it if you want) and then pile it back up with butter between each layer and wrap it in foil. Throw it on the grill about a half hour at a low temp before you start your burgers and leave it on until the burgers are done. You can start it even earlier if you want.
Add some to the burgers, eat the rest right out of the foil afterwords.
Alternatively. Just toss the entire onion, peels and all right on the grill. (You’ll have to play with the heat/timing, it’s been a while since I’ve done it). When it’s done, cut off the top and bottom and let it slide out into a bowl. What I like about this method is that the outside will be more done then the inside so people that like their onion a bit more raw can grab that part and people that like it really sweet and cooked can grab from the outside.
As you’ve learned (like many people before you) raw onion and sauteed onion are like two entirely different foods. I can’t stand raw onions, but I can eat cooked/sauteed onions like candy. Just think about how many onion rings you’ve eaten without giving it a second thought.
There is much variety but basically it’s in two broad categories: sweets and everything else. Storage onions are available year-round but as they are more oniony they’re normally cooked first. Sweet onions are fabulous raw and great on sandwiches, burgers, etc. and yes, you can eat them like an apple without your eyes tearing up. Seek out some Walla Walla’s sometime. Sweet onions don’t store as well so they tend to only be available in season.
Walla Walla’s are the best sweet onion in my opinion. For everyday cooking though I almost exclusively use red onions. They can be used in almost any recipe that calls for any of the other onions, except for the sweet, they are a different category.
The common onion varies in size and flavor, but is usually fairly sharp and acidic. Red onions have a very sharp taste. I use them primarily for decoration. There are sweet onions available from many areas, many of them better than Vidalias. Vidalias tend to be fairly wet, and have a limited shelf life as a result. They’re also expensive if you don’t live in Georgia. The Spanish Onion is a larger yellow onion that varies in flavor, sometimes more pungent than common onions, sometimes less. The Bermuda Onion has a somewhat flat shape (similar to many of the Vidalias) and usually a milder flavor than common onions.
When cooking, onions can be fried until they turn transparent which will be the mildest form of their original flavor. Continued cooking will caramelize them, producing a sweeter flavor. It’s a process which has to be done carefully to avoid burning. Pick out any pieces that turn black to get the burnt flavor out. There are some recipes that actually use burnt onion, but it just means taking them to the extreme end of caramelization with a little bit of the burnt flavor. Onions don’t have to be fried in dishes like soups and stews with a long cooking time to get a nice flavor, but they won’t caramelize. In many dishes onions are cooked first to imbue the flavor in all the other ingredients, and because they can take longer time to tenderize.
The common onions cousins are used in the traditional 5 onion soup. The 5 onions would be the common onion (or one of the regional varieties described above), the leek, the shallot, the scallion, and the chive. Other varieties and relatives of the onion may be used also. The most flavorful part of leeks and scallions are the white and light green sections at the bottom of the plant. The darker green portion has a different flavor, but can sometimes be bitter, especially the outer leaves. The chive is much smaller and the whole plant is used. Leeks, scallions, and chives are often cross cut into rings, but may be chopped in any manner, or cooked whole in some cases. Shallots have a finer flavor than onions. They have a dry peel on the outside like common onions, but are often in clusters or 2 or more, similar to a garlic bulb. Shallots have reddish-blue layers in the way that Red onions have red layers. I generally make French Onion soup using the 5 varieties.
Parts of the above paragraphs are based on my experiences and personal tastes. YMMV
Onions can be divided into the sweet types and the pungent types. There are two types of sweet onions: yellow and red. The sweetest are yellow types such as Walla Walla and Maui onions. Some of them are so sweet you can eat them like apples. In my opinion, this type of onion is best eaten raw - cooking tends to destroy their delicate flavor. I like to put them in sandwiches and salads.
Sweet red onions are generally more pungent than the sweet yellow types, but you can still eat them raw. They tend to have a very firm texture that holds up to cooking. I think they’re good in dishes like potato salads.
The pungent types of onions include yellows and whites. Many people prefer the whites to the yellows - they tend to have a finer texture. Generally, the whites are more expensive than the yellows. Yellows tend to last longer in storage.
If you’re a recovering onion hater, you should know that long, slow cooking tends to make onions mild and sweet. Onions added to something like a pot roast add a lot to the flavor without making the final result very “oniony.”
Onions contain a lot of sugar, so they can burn easily when cooked on high heat. If you want to grill onions for a burger, say, it’s best to slice them thinly and cook them with a little oil over low heat for a long time. This drives the water out of the onions and eliminates the pungency without scorching. If you’re patient and careful, you can carmelize the onions, turning them brown and very sweet. It’s best to use a wide skillet for this, as it allows the moisture from the onions to evaporate easily.
If you want to carmelize a lot of onions without having to hover over the stove, you can slice them thinly, toss them with oil and put them in the oven in a large covered pot. Set the oven for 400 F and bake the onions for an hour, then remove the lid and bake them for perhaps another hour. This will reduce a huge potful of onions to a small amount of carmelized onions. I wouldn’t use this technique unless you’re doing a large amount, as I’m afraid the onions would burn.
If I make a meatloaf, I will very carefully cook the onions and celery and bell pepper in a skillet with a little oil, adding a bit more oil if needed. I don’t really caramelize the veggies, I just get them tender.
I’ll also do this with soups and stews, though I usually don’t use bell peppers in soups or stews, just the onion and celery.
I roast chickens in a big Dutch oven, I peel and slice potatoes and lay down a layer or two. Then I peel onions and carrots and chop them into quarters, and cut a rib of celery into quarters. One quarter of each vegetable goes into the neck cavity, half of the veggies go in the body cavity, and the rest are scattered around the bird. I don’t precook the onions in this case. If I want stuffing, it’s cooked outside the bird, possibly with some drippings in it. The vegetables flavor the bird very nicely, and are delicious.
Potato and leek soup is one of the most comforting soups there is on a cool or cold day. I usually put some dried parsley on top of each bowl. This soup is good with just the potatoes and leeks, or with bacon or ham in it, too.
I grill sliced onions and mushrooms in some butter, put them in a heatproof dish and put them in a slow oven, and then cook a steak or chop or chicken breast in the same skillet, then serve the mushrooms and onions on the side of the chunk of flesh. It makes the meat look more substantial. Sometimes I cook chopped celery with this, too.
Onions can add a lot of flavor for a very low cost, and they’re good for you. The butter isn’t so good for you, which is why I try to use just a bit of it.
Red onions are usually served raw, and are commonly used on burgers and pizzas.
I’ll sometimes make a batch when it’s convenient - say, I just cooked some bacon and have a panful of fat - and once cooked into golden brown sweet deliciousness, let them cool and then freeze them in flat zip baggies. It’s easy to break off a chunk when you want some.
For example, hot dogs with minced raw onions are very nice (to me - I friggin’ love onions) but hot dogs with caramelized onions - now there’s a treat. But hot dogs are - to me - a quick food, and I’m not going to take the trouble to make a long-cooking topping for a quick snack. But having them available in the freezer ensures sweet soft lovely noms on my hot dog.
Scallions add a specialness to many dishes - Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican - that you simply can’t get with any other onion. You have to slice part of the green stem. A bowl of wonton soup is undressed without a sprinkle of chopped scallions.
I’ve never had this. But I think that I’m going to have to try it, both on the grill and in the oven. I dearly love roasted garlic, which is incredibly flavorful yet also mild. To ensure accurate testing, I think that I’ll have to try at least two onions, one with butter and one with olive oil.
Joey P, if you like that recipe you need to try this out next time you grill. Core a Vidalia onion, push a beef bouillon cube into the center; pack the rest of the hole with butter. Wrap the onion in foil, toss on the grill while it’s still heating up. After your burgers are all cooked the onions are ready. The good thing is that you can’t overcook them. The softer they are, the better they are. YUM.
I just went down to my building’s cafeteria to get a salad from the salad bar. They have red onions hacked up in giant pieces, which are not what anybody wants on a salad. They’re almost too big to stir-fry. So I took my onionless salad across the hall to the coffee shop which has a much smaller salad bar, but their onions are sliced very fine, just whispers of red onions.
Except they didn’t have any today. The salad bar was much depleted (no tomatoes, no cucumbers, and two kinds of dressing where they usually have at least six) and the staff was slammed with business. Some customers were getting all up in the guy’s face when he was putting out tomatoes about how things were missing.
I just asked quietly if there were any onions and when he shook his head I thanked him and left. But this salad really needs some onions.