The onion or allium family is a large and diverse one containing over 500 species. It has not one, but four possible wild plants it could have evolved from, all of which originally grew in central Asia, according to many archaeologists, botanists and food historians. Because onions are small and their tissues leave little or no trace, there is no conclusive evidence about the exact location and time of their origin. 

Wild Onions

It is presumed that our predecessors discovered and started eating wild onions very early, long before farming or even writing was invented. Very likely, this humble vegetable was a staple in the prehistoric diet. Since onions grew wild in various regions, they were probably consumed for thousands of years and domesticated simultaneously all over the world. 

Onion Planter 1890

For over 4000 years, onions were used for medicinal purposes. Egyptians numbered over 8000 onion alleviated ailments and there is documentation which describes the onion’s importance as a food and its use in art, medicine and mummification.

Onions grew in Chinese gardens as early as 5000 years ago and they are referenced in some of the oldest Vedic writings from India. There is evidence that the Sumerians were growing onions as early as 2500 B.C.

Onions may be one of the earliest cultivated crops because they were less perishable than other foods of the time. They were transportable, easy to grow and could be grown in a variety of soils and climates. In addition, the onion was useful for sustaining human life. Onions prevented thirst and could be dried and preserved for later consumption when food might be scarce.

In India as early as the sixth century B.C., the famous medical treatise Charaka – Sanhita celebrates the onion as medicine “…a diuretic, good for digestion, the heart, the eyes and the joints”.

It was the Romans who introduced the onion family to Europe. The Romans ate onions regularly and carried them on journeys to their provinces in England and Germany. Pliny the Elder, wrote of Pompeii’s onions and cabbages before he was overcome and killed by the volcano’s heat and fumes.  He cataloged the Roman beliefs about the ability of the onion to cure vision, induce sleep, heal mouth sores, dog bites, toothaches, dysentery and lumbago. Excavators of the destroyed city would later find gardens where, just as Pliny had said, “onions grew”. The bulbs had left behind telltale cavities in the ground.

By the Middle Ages, the three main vegetables of European cooking were beans, cabbage and onions. In addition to serving as a “…food for both the poor and the wealthy…” onions were prescribed to alleviate headaches, snakebites and hair loss. They were also used as rent payments and wedding gifts.

The Greek physician, Hippocrates, prescribed onions as a diuretic, wound healer and pneumonia fighter. Likewise, Dioscorides, another Greek physician noted several medicinal uses of onions. The Greeks used onions to fortify athletes for the Olympic Games. Before competition, athletes would consume pounds of onions, drink onion juice and rub onions on their bodies.

The first Pilgrims brought onions with them on the Mayflower. However, they found that strains of wild onions already grew throughout North America. Native American Indians used wild onions in a variety of ways, eating them raw or cooked, as a seasoning or as a vegetable. Such onions were also used in syrups, poultices, as an ingredient in dyes and even as toys. According to diaries of the colonists, bulb onions were planted as soon as the Pilgrim farmers could clear the land in 1648.

Onion Field

During World War II, the Russian soldiers were so taken with the onion’s ability to prevent infection, that they applied onions to battle wounds as an antiseptic.

And through the ages, there have been countless folk remedies that have ascribed curative powers to the onion, such as putting a sliced onion under your pillow to fight off insomnia.

Yet today, onions are still considered a modern day preventative and healer. Herbalists use the plant for treating such ailments as earaches, hemorrhoids and high blood pressure. While garlic, another allium, has been highly touted as a cancer preventative, most people consume far greater quantities of onions.

There are many varieties of onions, each with a different taste and/or texture. They are generally categorized by two types, green or dry onions. Green onions are ones that are harvested when roots are still very young and stems are green. These onions are typically used as toppings for salads and soups. Dry onions on the other hand are harvested after their shoots have died. These onions are distinguished by a papery shell that must be removed before cooking.

Why Onions Are A Healthy Choice.

The World Health Organization (WHO) supports the use of onions for the treatment of poor appetite and to prevent atherosclerosis. In addition, onion extracts are recognized by WHO for providing relief in the treatment of coughs, asthma and bronchitis. Onions are known to decrease bronchial spasms. An onion extract was found to decrease allergy-induced bronchial constriction in asthma patients.

Onions are a very rich source of fructo-oligosaccharides. These molecules  stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria and suppress the growth of potentially harmful bacteria in the colon. In addition, they can reduce the risk of tumors developing in the colon.

Onions contain a number of sulfides similar to those found in garlic, which may lower blood lipids and blood pressure. In India, communities that never consumed onions or garlic had blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels substantially higher and blood clotting times shorter, than the communities that ate liberal amounts of garlic and onions. Onions are a rich source of flavonoids, substances known to provide protection against cardiovascular disease. Onions are also natural anti-clotting agents since they possess substances with fibrinolytic (means the ability to suppress blood clots) activity and can suppress platelet-clumping. The anti-clotting effect of onions closely correlates with their sulfur content.

Onion extracts, rich in a variety of sulfides, provide some protection against tumor growth. In central Georgia, where Vidalia onions are grown, mortality rates from stomach cancer are about one-half the average level for the United States. Studies in Greece have shown a high consumption of onions, garlic and other allium herbs to be protective against stomach cancer.

 Here are a few characteristics about the most popular onions.

Leeks

Leeks are known for tasting like a cross between an onion and garlic. The edible part is the long white stem which is generally cut up and used to make soup and stews .

Red Onions

These onions are of the dry variety and have a purple shell. They are semi-sweet and actually can grow quite large. They do not keep long as their fleshy inside layer is very thin. Raw red onions are popular as toppings for a salad as well as cooked in dishes.

Shallots

Though commonly thought of as a separate vegetable, shallots are actually part of the onion family. They have a mildly sweet flavor and are grown the same way as garlic. They are slightly more delicate than other onion varieties and are best used in fine, thin sauces.

Vidalia or Walla Walla Onions

The Vidalia is considered the sweetest onion variety. They are rounded with flat bottoms and have a copper-gold, thin skin with milky, white flesh. Their delicate sweetness can be attributed to a mild climate, sandy, low sulfur soil, selective seed varieties and farming practices.

Scallions

Scallions are another green onion known for their mild taste and decorative appeal. The stems are the edible part and are usually diced up in a vegetable medley for seafood and meat dishes.

Yellow Onions

Yellow Onions are the most common onion characterized by a brown shell and white fleshy insides. These onions have a strong, sharp flavor and its taste cuts through when used with multiple ingredients.

White Onions

These onions have a white skin. They have a strong flavored flesh that is usually used in Mexican recipes. These can be sauteed to a deep brown color. They are great in recipes that require a sweet and sour flavor.

 

Pearl Onions

These onions are a small-sized variety, that are also called baby onions. They are sweeter than bulb onions and are often used in casseroles.

 

Bermuda Onions

This is a sweet onion that is not very pungent when compared to other varieties. It is a big onion that has white flesh and a mild flavor. It is often used as a condiment on hamburgers.

 

Boiling Onions

Boiling onions are good storage onions. They have a very thin skin and this makes them a favorite ingredient in stew recipes.

Cipollini

Cipollini are small onions that originated in Cipolla, Italy. They have a very rich and sweet taste with a high sugar content. They tend to be as small as a ping-pong ball and have a flat top. They are used in baking dishes, such as roast chicken and roast pork.

Egyptian Onions

Also known as tree onions or walking onions and they grow as a cluster of bulblets. The name “Walking Onion” was given to this plant because it literally walks to new locations. When the cluster of topsets becomes heavy enough, it will pull the plant over to the ground. They have a strong flavor and have a tough skin. They are elongated in shape and look similar to scallions.

Green Onions

Green onions are small varieties that are harvested when the shoots are still green. They are often confused with scallions but are thinner. These are used as toppings for many uncooked dishes.

 

Pickling Onions

Pickling onions are usually thin layered and small.  They are similar to pearl onions but a little larger, yet a little smaller than boiling onions. Pickled onions have a very pungent flavor.

 

Spanish Onions

These are long storage varieties that come in yellow, white and red colors. Each variety has a distinct taste and flavor.

Spring Onions

They are also known as summer onions. They come in three different varieties red, yellow and white. They are very thin-skinned and light in color. They have a high water and sugar content. They are usually used for salads and recipes that do not require long cooking.

Ramps

This North American native spring onion is edible in its entirety, from the tops of its lily of the valley looking leaves and stems, all the way down to the bulb. Eaten raw, a ramp tastes strong and more like garlic than scallion, but if cooked, its flavor turns mildly sweet.  They are also used in salads.

 

Some New Ways To Use Onions:

Homemade Beer-Spring Onion Mustard

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons safflower canola oil
  • 2 1/2 pounds thinly sliced Vidalia onions
  • 1/2 cup mustard powder
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 cup pale ale

Directions:

Heat a large skillet over high heat. Add oil and swirl to coat. Reduce heat to medium. Cook onions, stirring often, until very soft, about 30 minutes. Stir in mustard powder, salt, and turmeric. Cook, stirring often, for 3 minutes. Stir in cider vinegar and raise heat to high. Add pale ale, and cook, stirring often, until mixture is thick, about 5 minutes. Let cool completely.

Baked Onion Rings

Cornflakes and a hot sheet pan are the secrets to the crispiness of these onion rings.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 cups cornflakes
  • 1/2 cup plain dried breadcrumbs
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 cup lowfat buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Coarse salt and ground pepper
  • 1 medium sweet onion, such as Vidalia, sliced crosswise and broken into rings (discard small center rings)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Directions:

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

In a food processor, pulse cornflakes and breadcrumbs until fine crumbs form, then transfer to a medium bowl.

In another medium bowl, whisk together egg, buttermilk, flour and cayenne. Season with salt and pepper.

Dip onion rings in egg mixture (letting excess drip off) and dredge in cornflake mixture; place on a large plate.

Pour oil onto a rimmed baking sheet. Place the baking sheet in the oven and heat 2 minutes. Remove sheet from oven and tilt to coat evenly with oil.

Arrange onion rings on sheet. Bake, turning once, until onion rings are golden brown, about 16 minutes. Season with salt.

 

Tomato-Onion Compote

Use as a topping for bruschetta. This sauce is also very good on a hamburger. You can skip the ketchup.

Time: 4 hours 15 minutes

 Ingredients:

  • 4 plum tomatoes (about 3/4 pound), halved lengthwise and seeded
  • 1/4 teaspoon sugar
  • Salt and freshly ground white pepper
  • 3 thyme sprigs
  • 2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Spanish onion (about 3/4 pound), quartered lengthwise and thinly sliced
  • 1/4 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained and finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons chopped basil

 Directions:

Heat oven to 200 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper and spread tomatoes cut side up on baking sheet. Season with sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Scatter thyme and garlic on top, and oven-dry for 4 hours.

Meanwhile, in a medium saute pan, heat olive oil. Add onion and season with salt. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until very tender and golden brown, about 35 minutes.

Cool tomatoes, then peel and place on a cutting board. Finely chop tomatoes with cooked garlic. Place in a bowl. Pull oven-dried thyme leaves off their stems and add to the tomatoes; discard stems. Add sun-dried tomatoes, onion and basil to bowl and combine. Taste compote and add salt and pepper if needed.

Yield: About 1 1/2 cups.

Caramelized Onion Jam

Use as an appetizer with Brie or other soft cheese and serve with crisp crackers or crostini.

Serves 12

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 4 large onions, sliced
  • 2/3 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup brown malt vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary

Directions:

Heat butter in large pan, add onions and cook gently for 20 to 30 minutes until onions are very soft and lightly browned. Add sugar, stir to melt sugar, simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally until mixture is thick and caramelized. Add vinegar and simmer uncovered for about 5 minutes until thickened slightly. Stir in the rosemary.

 

Sausage-Stuffed Red Onions

Makes 8

Ingredients

  • 8 small-to-medium red onions
  • Coarse salt
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 8 ounces sweet Italian sausage
  • 1/3 cup grated tart green apple, such as Granny Smith
  • 1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1/2 cup plain dried breadcrumbs
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
  • 3/4 cup grated Gruyere cheese (3 ounces)

Directions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Slice off a thin layer from the tops and bottoms of the onions, leaving at least a 2-inch diameter exposed at the top. Scoop out the inside of each onion (about halfway down) using a melon scoop or a grapefruit spoon. Season insides with salt. Transfer onions to a baking dish, and cover with parchment, then foil. Bake until just starting to soften, about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Crumble sausage into skillet, and cook, stirring, until almost cooked through, about 3 minutes. Add apple and fennel seeds, and cook until sausage is no longer pink, about 2 minutes.

Drain sausage mixture. Finely chop the sausage mixture and place in a mixing bowl. Stir in breadcrumbs, parsley, sage and 1/4 cup Gruyere. Let cool.

Fill onions with stuffing (about 3 tablespoons each), then top with remaining 1/2 cup Gruyere. Bake until tops are crisp and brown, about 20 minutes more.

 

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