Friday, 5 December 2008 | Tags:

A savoury staple in millions of recipes, the onion comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, colours, and flavours. We take a closer look at these pungent, tasty vegetables.

The Basics

  • There are a few types of onions commonly available in a typical grocery store:

    • Yellow onions, or cooking onions, are the most common. Yellow onions are full-flavored and are a reliable standby for cooking almost anything. They turn a rich, dark brown when cooked and give French Onion Soup its tangy sweet flavor.

    • Red or purple onions have flavour ranging from mild to sweet, and are often eaten raw, added for color to salads. They’re also good grilled or lightly cooked, but may lose their colour when cooked.

    • Organic onions tend to be higher in sulfur content, which is what gives onions their strong, complex flavour. Unfortunately, sulfur is also what produces the vapour that burns your eyes when cutting onions.

  • The time of year onions are grown can affect their flavour:

    • Onions are typically sweeter in spring and summer than in fall and winter. Keep this in mind when shopping for a particular recipe.

    • Fall/winter onions last longer and contain less sugar and water than spring onions. This makes fall/winter onions ideal for simmering in recipes with longer cooking times, like chili.

  • To choose a good onion:

    • Pick ones that are heavy for their size. Heavier ones are juicier.

    • The outer skins should be dry, papery and crackling, and showing no signs of spotting or moistness.

    • The skin beneath the papery layer should be smooth and tight all the way around, with no loose or soft spots, dark blemishes, or sprouts.

    • Onions should feel firm when squeezed and have no scent. If they’re squishy, they’re probably past their prime.

Other Considerations

  • Onions are good for your health! They:

    • are only 30 calories per serving, sodium-free, fat-free, and cholesterol-free

    • provide dietary fiber, vitamin C, vitamins B1 and B6, potassium, folic acid, and other key nutrients.

    • contain calcium and iron, and have a high protein quality (ratio of mg amino acid/gram protein)

    • contain as many as 150 phytochemicals (antioxidants) and have anti-inflammatory, anti-cholesterol, and anti-cancer components such as quercetin.

    • increase circulation, lower blood pressure, and increase “good” cholesterol.

    • fight against many diseases and disorders including the common cold, heart disease, diabetes, gastric ulcers, osteoporosis, and cataracts.


  • Early spring chives are thin and bright green with a delicate flavour. Late-season ones have a stronger onion flavour.

  • Avoid any chives with an off smell, or ones with slimy or yellowing stalks.

  • The flavour of chives is best fresh, so do not buy dried. Freeze-dried chives are available, and are somewhat better than regular dried chives. Still, freeze-dried chives should be used for cooking, rather than in fresh dishes like salads or garnishes.

  • Although many cooks substitute green onions when chives are called for in a recipe, their flavour and texture is not as delicate and herbal as chives. Green onions have thicker stalks, thicker skins, and a stronger onion flavour.

  • Look for chives along with the other specialty herbs in your supermarket. They may be shelved separately from more commonly used herbs, like parsley, cilantro, and green onions.



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