Onions are endlessly versatile and an essential ingredient in countless recipes. Native to Asia, these underground bulbs are prized all over the world for the depth and flavour that they add to savoury dishes. Drys are fully matured, with juicy flesh and dry, papery skin and have a pungent flavour that becomes wonderfully sweet upon lengthy cooking.
Varieties ofdiffer in size, strength and colour. The yellow is the most commonly known variety; it has pale golden skin, greenish-white flesh and a strong taste. Red onions are an attractive, milder alternative to the yellow onion with their shiny purple skin and red-tinged flesh. Shallots are a sub-species of onion; they are small and boast a delicate flavour integral to French cooking. Spring onions are immature onions pulled before the bulb is fully formed, and can be recognised by their long green leaves. Like red onions, they are fairly mild and often used raw in salads.
When chopped, onions produce a volatile, sulphur-rich oil that makes eyes water. Over the years cooks have devised many ways to prevent this – freezing the onion; wearing goggles or holding your breath – but they are rarely completely effective. The best way is to not cut through the root of the onion, as this is where most of the oil resides.
Choose the best
Look for firm onions, with no soft spots, damp or mouldy patches. Choose from the following, according to your recipe:
White onion: medium to large in shape, with a white papery skin and evenly white flesh. They have a strong flavour and are good for stuffing or baking; only use raw in salads if you want an assertive onion flavour.
Yellow/brown onion: a good all-purpose onion, with a light golden skin and yellow flesh.
Spanish onion: has a similarly coloured skin to a yellow/brown onion, but is usually bigger, as well as sweeter and milder – good for omelettes, salsas and stir-fries.
Red onion: varies in size, but has a distinctive red/purple skin, and the edge of each of its white rings is tinged with red. The flavour is mild and quite sweet. Good for salads, marinades, salsas and roasts.