Did you know that the humble onion that you use in almost every savory dish actually comes in a huge variety from red, white and yellow onions to pickling, Bermuda and torpedo onions?
It is one of the most indispensable vegetables found on planet Earth because let’s face it; almost every pie, soup, and casserole calls for an onion.
It is one of those rare foods that have a combination of exotic flavors ranging from sweet and mild to super complex and pungent.
It is safe to say that onions provide us with a kind of a culinary luxury that no other vegetable does. It is also one of the most versatile of all foods given how you can use various techniques for it like grilling, braising, roasting, sautéing, pickling, caramelizing, and even serving raw.
History of Onions
Many food historians and botanists believe that onions originated from Central Asia while many others suggest that they were first grown in West Pakistan and Iran.
It is said that the consumption of onions began long before farming was even invented and this humble vegetable went on to becoming a staple in the prehistoric diet.
Interestingly, onions were also used as an object of worship in Egypt and symbolized ‘eternity’, which is why Egyptians buried pharaohs with large amounts of onions. The underlying theory behind this is that because of the unique structure of onions, that is, circle-within-circle, it was highly characteristic of an eternal life.
Here are some of the most famous and common types of onions used all around the world.
Also called brown onions due to their brownish-yellow papery peel, Yellow Onions are a chef’s “safest bet” when a recipe doesn’t specify what type of onion to use. They contain a high sulphur content that gives them their strong, complex and pungent taste.
Yellow onions are usually available throughout the year, majorly between the spring and fall season after which they are stored for the rest of the year. 90 percent of yellow onions are grown in the United States and it is also one of the most commonly grown types of onion in Northern Europe.
The incredibly rich and potent taste of yellow onions makes them perfect for foods like French Onion Soup, stews, caramelized onions, and many more.
True to its name, sweet onions actually have a sweet kick to them that makes them ideal for caramelizing. They have a crispy texture with a fairly mild flavor that tastes excellent raw in salads, as garnishee, and in relishes. This sweet-mild flavor comes from its low sulphur content and high water content.
Sweet onion holds its origins in the United States since the early 20th century. It is slightly flatter and larger than yellow onions and has a light colored opaque skin.
Due to their size and the rich sweet flavor, yellow onions are a great choice for making delicious onion rings.
White onions are often referred to as a paler version of yellow onions due to their mild white flesh and a pure white, papery skin. They have a strong, pungent flavor that is slightly towards the sweeter side.
These onions are a staple in Mexican Cuisine because their flavor strongly complements the flavor of the other Mexican ingredients. They have a slightly sweet aftertaste that makes them perfect for tacos, salsa, guacamole and ceviche. Often times, white onions are also used as a sideline in meat dishes in the form of pickles.
Some of the common varieties of white onions include Vidalia, Walla Walla and Mauri.
These are characterized by their deep, magenta color and are super crunchy with a strong, complex flavor. Interestingly though, the variety of red onions that is grown from March to September is the sweetest, otherwise they tend to have a very spicy and peppery flavor.
One of the most prominent suppliers of the red onion is in the United States, particularly grown in Wethersfield, Connecticut. It was also the primary source of red onions until the 1800s for New England.
The best way to include red onions in your food is to have them raw, perhaps when added to salads or when used as garnishee for a burger.
Shallots are a type of onion that is similar to green onions and leeks in terms of their looks. They are from the allium family and are believed to be a member of the onion family than being a true onion.
They originated from Southwest and Central Asia from where they travelled to India and further moved to the Eastern Mediterranean. Shallots are bulb-shaped alliums with a mild, onion flavor but often taste like a mixture of onions and garlic. They are small and have a pale-purplish color with brown skins and purple flesh.
When used in food, shallots leave a very rich, intense flavor which makes them perfect for salads, sauces, salad dressings, and curries.
Bermuda onions were first brought to Bermuda in 1616 and later went on to become a staple crop there, which is how they acquired this unique name. Back in those days, these onions were bulb-shaped and had a very sweet and mild taste to them. They also came in various different colors like yellow, white, red and purple.
Bermuda onions are often used as a substitute for shallots and Spanish onions due to the similarity between their taste and flavor. It is featured in a number of local dishes like the Bermuda onion soup and Bermuda Fish chowder, to name a few. These onions are also great for baking and stuffing purposes due to their particularly large size.
Leeks look like overgrown scallions and are a truly marvelous vegetable. Compared to an onion, leeks don’t have the typical bulb-shape but are shaped like long cylinders put together in a bundle.
Leeks have been found to in great abundance in Egypt and specimens from several archaeological sites in ancient Egypt have revealed that leeks were a significant part of the Egyptian diet. Interestingly, the leek was Emperor Nero’s favorite vegetable, which was the vegetable used in oils and soups.
Leeks are excellent to use in stews, stir-fry and soups.
With similar looks to green onions, Welsh onions are native to China but have also been found growing in scattered locations across North America and Eurasia. They are slightly bigger than green onions and are popularly used in a variety of Asian dishes.
The term “welsh” is often believed to refer to ‘Wales’ however, it actually means foreign or non-native, which makes sense given its origin and heritage.
Welsh onions are excellent for a variety of stir-fry dishes but can also be used in salads and soups.
Also known as Spring Onions or Scallions, green onions are super thin and long in shape and are always sold in big bunches. They belong to the same family as chives, leeks, garlic and shallots and contain a fairly milder taste compared to other onions.
Green onions are popularly used in a variety of Asian dishes like teriyaki meats, stir-fries, sandwiches and dips. They are also often used as garnishes because of their bright green color.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, green onions are usually chopped and added to mashed potatoes whereas in Mexico, they are whole grilled sprinkled with salt and eaten together with a combination of rice and cheese.
These are also called Button Onions or Baby Onions and actually look like tiny, glistening pearls, as the name suggests. They are so small that they are often used whole in salads and other food dishes.
Pearl onions have a sweet, mild taste and are great for pickling. They are most commonly cultivated in Germany, Italy and the Netherlands.
Since they sport an ideal combination of being small in size and having a sweet taste, pearl onions have been used in many American casserole dishes including succotash and also in a variety of onion relishes in Indian cuisine.
A fascinating thing about pearl onions is that due to their pearl-like appearance, they are used as a cut flower in Israel and as a beautiful flowering plant in modern Europe.
These come from the Hawaiian island of Maui, as the name suggests. Maui onions are super juicy and full of rich taste, which they seem to have acquired from Maui’s red volcanic soil.
They are extremely sweet in flavor, owing to their juiciness and are excellent for marinating and caramelizing. They have a thin, papery and flaky skin that gives them a crispy texture, making them the perfect choice for delicious onion rings.
This is a type of yellow onion with a mild, sweet taste. They are slightly larger in size compared to other onions which makes them ideal for hamburgers. Their size also makes them a great option for large, stuffed onion rings and even for salads and stews.
Spanish onions contain a high sulphur content which gives them a rich, pungent taste and aroma. Because of their mild and complex taste, they can even be eaten raw without the need for roasting, grilling or cooking them.
These onions come in small to medium sizes and contain elongated bulbs that are connected to straight and slender leaves. Torpedo onions are super crunchy with a tender flesh, mild aroma and a super sweet flavor.
They are native to Italy and are often featured in several Italian food varieties. These onions are believed to be best for grilling, roasting, braising and sautéing. Their mild and sweet flavor also makes them ideal for salads, sandwiches, dips and salad dressings.
Torpedo onions aren’t just popular for their unique shape, color and size but also because of their high nutritional profile. They contain large amounts of vitamin C, potassium, calcium, magnesium, folate and fiber which make them super healthy and beneficial.
These onions are super popular in the South because of their extremely sweet flavor, which makes them ideal for raw consumption. Their origins can be traced back to the U.S state of Georgia since the early 1900s and were named as Georgia’s official state vegetable in the 1990s.
Vidalia onion is often described as a mild, succulent onion that is sweet enough to be eaten as a fruit. It is also very low in its calorie content and is believed to be really helpful for digestion purposes.
These onions are best used raw in hamburgers, garden salads and as a sideline to steaks.
Cipollini literally translates to “little onion” in Italian and that’s what cipollini onions actually are: little! These onions are almost similar to golf balls in terms of size and sport a much flattened appearance. They have a transparent white flesh that makes them thin-skinned.
Cipollini onions are commonly found in brown or beige colors and contain a rich, sweet taste making them perfect for roast and caramelized dishes.
When roasted in the oven with a bit of butter on top, these onions literally melt in your mouth and become super soft and tender. They are best used in various kinds of salads and provide a subtle sweet kick to your food.
Chives are a type of onion that that belong to the same family as garlic, leeks and onion. They come in long, slender bulb shapes with a super soft texture to them. Chives are believed to be native to North America and have also been found in abundance in Northern Maine.
A chives is a very popular choice of onion to use in soups, stews, salads, dips, and vinegars. They also have a very subtle flavor that is considered to be milder than a few other members of the onion family.
However, due to their unique flavor, they are often used in casseroles and other similar main dishes for some extra oomph.
So, which type of onion do you use the most in your dishes?