Onion Basics

Onions, which are considered both a vegetable and spice, are a kitchen staple all over the world.

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Onions belong in the same family as shallot, garlic, chive, Chinese onion and leek. Almost every soup or sauce is made with onions and, because they are such a common element in our everyday diet, it’s helpful to know more about them. 

THE ONION FAMILY

There are three main types of onions; red, yellow and white. Each one has a slightly different appearance, flavour, and taste. Overall, onions contain vitamin C, folic acid, vitamin B6 and potassium and are rich in antioxidants that protect against heart diseases. It’s healthier to consume them raw, since many nutrients are lost during the cooking process, but you might not enjoy the taste depending on the variety. 

Yellow onion, sometimes referred to as brown onion, is the most commonly used due to its versatility. Generally, if a recipe lists onion without labeling which one, it can be  assumed that the recipe is referring to yellow onion. Yellow onion requires a slightly longer cooking time than its red and white counterparts and has a sweet taste.

Generally, if a recipe lists onion without labeling which one, it can be assumed that the recipe is referring to yellow onion.

You’ll often see red onion used as a garnish for salads and dips, due to its vibrant color. It has a mild flavour and is less pungent than the yellow onion. Red onion has a purple/reddish skin which is due to the antioxidant content of the onion. Because red onions are less pungent, they can be enjoyed raw. 

White onion is very similar to yellow onion, when cooked, but very pungent when consumed raw. In fact, you risk overpowering the flavours  of your dish if you use raw white onion. It is better used in combination with other ingredients to lessen its sharpness.  

SHALLOTS

Think of shallots as baby onions. They’re small in size and haven’t developed the intensity of their older relative yet (but they’ll still make you cry!) Shallots grow underground in clusters. Typically, a small bulb with copper or reddish papery skin, shallots taste much milder than onions, with a subtle hint of garlic. In fact, you’ll usually find shallot displayed where the garlic lives in your grocery store. Shallots are cultivated all over the world for culinary uses, especially in South India. In Asian cuisine, both shallots and garlic are used as primary ingredients. In particular, deep-fried shallots are used as a condiment for Asian porridge. 

One of the best ways to use shallots is in a vinaigrette and you can’t ask for a better accompaniment to raw oysters than shallot mignonette. One of the best charcuterie board accoutrements is pickled shallots, but hamburgers and tacos also welcome this crunchy fresh topping. Feel free to substitute shallots in almost any recipe that calls for onions, but keep in mind that one small onion equals several shallots.

Typically, a small bulb with copper or reddish papery skin, shallots taste much milder than onions, with a subtle hint of garlic.

One of the best ways to use shallots is in a vinaigrette and you can’t ask for a better accompaniment to raw oysters than shallot mignonette. One of the best charcuterie board accoutrements is pickled shallots, but hamburgers and tacos also welcome this crunchy fresh topping. Feel free to substitute shallots in almost any recipe that calls for onions, but keep in mind that one small onion equals several shallots.

SCALLIONS

Scallions and green onions are used interchangeably to refer to members of the Allium cepa species. They have a milder flavor than most onions with long, tender green leaves and white stalks with no bulb. Scallions are native to Central Asia and should be sliced—not chopped, so as not to bruise their leaves. The great thing about scallions is that the whole plant is edible, from its stalks down to its white roots. They are also packed with nutrients and are commonly enjoyed as a soup garnish or pickled whole. 

Scallions are native to Central Asia and should be sliced—not chopped, so as not to bruise their leaves.

TO SLICE OR TO DICE?

There are two basic onion cuts – the slice and the dice. To slice, place the onion half-flat on the cutting board and and trim off the root and stem. Hold it in place with your free hand, keeping your fingertips curled backwards and the flat of the knife resting against your knuckles. As you get to the end, rotate the onion so that it’s laying on its most stable base and continue slicing. 

To dice an onion, peel it, cut it in half and trim off only the stem end, leaving the root intact. Using the tip of your knife, make a series of parallel cuts, leaving the onion attached at the root. Again, keep your fingers curled back, using your knuckles as a guide. Next, rotate the onion and lay your hand flat on top of it to keep it stable and make one to two horizontal cuts. Now, slice the onion perpendicular to the cuts you just made. You’re ready to start cooking! 

So when do you use sliced versus diced onions? Use onion slices as salad toppings or saute slices to make caramelized onions. Use diced onions in pasta sauces, salsas, and soups. Remember, when chopping anything, always use a very sharp chef’s Knife (usually 8-inch).