Know Your Onions – Be They Red, White, Yellow, Spring; and Alliums, shallots, Leeks, Garlic… Culinary Guide To All Kinds of Alliums
“It’s hard to imagine civilisation without onions.”Julia Child
I wandered into my local supermarket in Italy and saw the three colours of onion – red, yellow and white. White? Why would anyone use them I wondered. And then there was also green….all are allium cepa. So I asked, and the friendly shopkeeper informed me in full.
Yellow onions (white flesh, golden brown skins), are the gold standard for cooking. They have the strongest flavour – and this is important as onions lose the intensity of flavour in the cooking process. They also tend to caramelise and become sweeter as they cook. They keep brilliantly for weeks in a cool dark place. They are the mainstay of every cook, but are rarely the principal performer – French onion soup gives them the pole position – thick and rich, it’s a dish which does them proud.
White onions (white flesh, white skins) have a less intense, more aromatic flavour than yellow. When cooked they are sharper, less sweet and slightly crunchier than yellow onions. So I was right really – why bother with white onions, when you can achieve a softer taste if you need to by more convenient means (see banana shallots, below). They don’t keep as well as yellow onions.
Red onions (purplish red skins, white flesh shot through at the edges with red) are softer and sweeter in taste than yellow and white onions. And they have looks – their red edges add visual impact to a dish. Because of their mildness some people use them raw in salads and sandwiches – I still find this too much ‘in your face’, but I do think they are good raw in salsas. Because of their visual advantages they’re also good in a dish of roasted Mediterranean vegetables, served at the table on a big antique platter (but bear in mind they lose their colour on cooking). They don’t keep as well as yellow onions. Red onions are red thanks to a chemical called anthocyanin, which is also found in red grapes and summer berries.
And then there are other alliums
Shallots, including échalotes grises
Normal shallots have an intense, sweet taste – it’s wonderful but they are hell to peel.
Even worse are the échalotes grises aka la griselle. It’s easier to find a summer day in England than these little wonders of alliumness, probably just as well since their hard, grey shell of a skin is even tougher to peel away from their purple inner bulbs than ordinary shallots. They’re grown mostly in the South-east of France, available July to October. It has a delicate, subtle taste.
There’s also Cuisse de Poulet du Poitou, which gets its name, ‘chicken’s thigh’, from its torpedo shape. Its skin is gold-red, and it looks very like a dwarf banana shallot (see below), but it has a rich, sweet taste.
There’s also a Jersey shallot: dressed in copper red, it is elongated and comes in round, long or half-long, looking a bit like a small onion. Its flesh varies between white and pink. It is produced in the west of France (Brittany and the Loire Valley in particular) and can be found all year round. It has a mild taste. The Dutch shallot is a type of Jersey shallot. The Jersey shallot is the bruiser of the trio, more commonly available, it’s flavour is the least sophisticated.
Peeling all of them is a pain – blanch the brown type for a few minutes in just boiled water and the skins will come off more easily.
The lower water content of shallots means you need to cook them more gently than other onions.
Banana shallots or echallions
Banana shallots are half onion and half shallot and have the benefits and disadvantages of both. To my mind the benefits of both outweigh the disadvantages and I use these little marvels all the time. I really can’t be bothered with fiddling around trying to peel shallots (although the blanching technique outlined above does help). I don’t always want the indiscreet, in-your-face flavour of onions – and if I’m cooking just for two I don’t want half a left-over onion floating around in my fridge imparting its odour generously over everything around it. Banana shallots are a much better option if you need half an onion. If you need a slightly sharper flavour grind in more pepper, some mild chilli (Byadgi or Aleppo pepper), or some lemon juice.
For loads more ideas about shallots, buy 365 Creative Shallot Recipes: A Shallot Cookbook You Will Love by Edna Lewis
A stalwart winter vegetable which is mild and sweet. Don’t use the green part to eat – slice the white part having trimmed the roots off and fry or braise gently. But don’t throw away the green part – you can add to the stockpot.
Ramps are wild leeks – they have a small, non-bulging bulb, often picked out with pink and broader leaves which you can also eat, but which have a softer flavour. Ramps taste of a mix of onion and garlic.
Spring onions (known in the States as ‘scallions’ or ‘green onions’)
Most spring onions are simply normal onions which haven’t yet developed a bulb. The thinner they are the sweeter they are.
They are mild so they don’t need to be cooked, but they add a sparkling zing to both salads and stir fries. If you fry spring onions with ginger, garlic and chilli you have a good basis for any stir fry. Spring onions are very good snipped into mashed avocado with some lime juice.
I usually use about an inch (2 cms) of the green part which has a slightly stronger taste than the white, but there is not reason why you shouldn’t use the whole leaf, minus the frayed, brown, dried ends.
Thinly sliced spring onions work well as an impromptu garnish, strewn over anything which looks a bit dowdy.
Or braise them slowly. Or grill them whole, like calçots, and then serve on toasted sourdough with goats cheese and a drizzle of honey.
They have a high water content so they will rot if kept in plastic bags…. which is why they are usually sold in bunches, kept together with rubber bands. If you are a gardener you could consider growing a beautiful pink variety called North Holland Blood Red. Go to D T Brown Seeds.
Sometimes spring onions – which are simply onions which have been harvested before their bulbs have been allowed to form, are allowed a little bulge – Americans call these spring onions. This teenage onion lends itself to being cut lengthways into very thin julienne-type strips and put into icy water where they curl up coquettishly, and become milder-mannered.
The Catalan calçot onion is treated in a different way, but it’s broadly the same idea as well.
The term ‘spring onion’ can also refer to the Asian type of onion, the allium fistulosum, which is a long, green, bunching onion which doesn’t ever form a bulb and grows in clusters. If you cut one of the leaves and look at the cross-section the layers will look circular.
Pearl onions are milder and sweeter than their big brothers, and they come red, yellow and white. They are great glazed, or roasted with apple balsamic vinegar. They are often used for pickling. They will hold their shape well in slow-cooked casseroles and stews.
Peeling them is a pain – blanch for a few minutes in just boiled water and the skins will come off more easily.
You come across sweet onions more in the States. They often look a bit squashed up. They have more water, and less sulphur which means they are less pungent (hence sweeter). Vidalia are the best known, but there are also Maui, Bermuda and Walla Walla varieties. Vidalia is a registered trademark for onions, which come from Georgia in the States. In Europe Spanish onions are probably the sweetest you’ll find. They don’t keep as well as yellow onions. They’re mild enough to eat raw, in salads and relishes. They don’t keep so well, so the fridge is best. Caramelised sweet onions go well in mashed potato, or in a tomato sandwich or salad.
Garlic and young (or green) garlic
Wandering around South Kensington Farmers’ Market the other day I spotted some wild garlic. The friendly stallholder cheerfully admitted that when she first saw them she thought they were spring onions.
How can you distinguish between onions and garlic? Both garlic and onions are alliums – but garlic will grow in colder climates.
Most people can distinguish between mature onions and garlic, but young garlic and onions look very similar. The garlic with have flat rather than tube-shaped leaves, and you will see pale pink or purple spots on the white part of the plant above the bulb.
The problem arises in distinguishing between young garlic and young leeks, both of which have flat leaves. The only way to do it is to use your nose – garlic will smell like garlic! Fry chopped green garlic gently in butter before you add beaten eggs to make scrambled eggs.
On the other hand, Raymond Blanc simply roasts garlic cloves and spreads the contents on toast…. fabulously simple!
“For what is a person without garlic? What can they know about the joys of being French, for example?….What can they know of Tutankhamun, whose tomb was found full of it?…. garlic has an ethereal, lacy beauty that onions, leeks and chives, its lowly cousins, can scarcely dream of – the shallot is a chubby sausage by comparison.”Alexander Gilmour, the FT’s food and drink editor, in The Financial Times, 2020
Allium sativum or “cultivated garlic” is the bossy ringleader of the allium family, which includes more than 1,000 recognised species of onion, garlic and leek. Its name is derived from Old English gar (spear) and leac (leek), a reference to its narrow, pointed leaves.Fuschia Dunlop, The Financial Times, September 2022
Storing, cooking and preparing onions
- A medium yellow onion (6.5 cm/2.5” diameter) will weigh about 70g/2.5 oz
- Most do best stored in a cool, dark place – not in the fridge
- Prepare them just before using – they start to lose their flavour after being cut
- Some people chop their onions wearing swimming goggles (yes, honestly); others under running water; I think the trick is to have a good, sharp knife – the sharper the knife the less spray there is. If you have an academic interest in onion tears follow this link to Rose-Lynn Fisher’s amazing site, where she’s posted super-close up images of onion tears… and of very different tears ‘of laughing till I’m crying’; ‘of grief’; ‘of reunion’…. and much more
- don’t discard the onion skins, or the layer below – they’re packed with goodness, fibre and a pigment called quercetin which helps to reduce blood pressure. Add to soups and stews and remove before serving.
- Cook them gently, if you fry in very hot oil they go bitter.
It’s all about patience says Irish chef Paul Flynn, quoted in The Gannet’s Gastronomic Miscellany, by Killian Fox.
“If you leave onions in a pot for five minutes, you’ll have an ok result. But if you leave them to cook really slowly in butter and bay leaves for 20 minutes you’ll have a dream”
In her memoir, Hungry, food writer Grace Dent, says the same:
“Softening an onion will be a lesson that lasts a lifetime. It will be the genesis of shepherd’s pie, frittata, and a thousand restorative soups, stews and curries. Decades later I will attempt to teach highly intelligent, otherwise practical, friends, to cook and realise that the fine art of onion softening is almost unteachable. It is a deeply mindful act that needs to be carried out absent-mindedly.”
Random quotes about onions
“…I’d select oneMargaret Gibson, from The Onion, by
yellow onion, fist-sized, test its sleek
hardness, haggle, and settle a fair price”
“Vegetable worshiped by the ancient Egyptians as a symbol of eternal life due to its internal concentric rings (5)”Kate Metham, GK Crossword, The Daily Telegraph
Music to cook to as you read
Below you have a fabulous jamming session, featuring Johnny Cash, Steve Cropper and The Edge no less, going great guns with Green Onions.