Sunday, September 6, 2009

How to make me Cry : The Truth about Onions

I think I’m crazy. I, recently, took a perfectly good Saturday morning and used it to conduct an onion tasting experiment. There was much tearing as I sniffed at each of the 10 specimens, my boyfriend was snickering at me from his computer the whole time. I took down the characteristics of each onion; smell and taste in both raw and baked states. Across cultures onions are used in cooking everything, people even eat them like apples… crazy people. So, I thought, they deserved some study and attention, since they are a major base for billions of dishes. The work horse of the kitchen, our alliums are used in stock, stir-fry, stew, salad, on burgers, deep fried and most spectacularly by the French in a Tarte L’oignon.

My findings were very exciting (perhaps only to me), onions vary a huge amount in sweetness level and heat mostly. But the really interesting finds were the subtle nuances of each special onion. I treated each with the respect of a fine wine and jotted down subtle flavour characteristics if they revealed themselves to me; anything from notes of cinnamon, fresh grass, melon and the most unique nuttiness. It was pretty cool for any food geek; I suggest you conduct your own experiment at home if you're nuts like me.

Note that St = strength and Ht = Heat, each rated from 1 mild – 4 strong

Raw Nose – buttery, cinnamon, floral, grassy, amazing nose. St -2
Raw Taste – bitter, buttery, earthy, grassy and very delicate. St - 1
Raw Heat –Very light heat, more bitter than hot Ht - 1
Broiled – Broiling these just made them lose their lovely, fresh subtlety, but they were buttery at least.

Green onion/Scallions

Raw Nose – earthy, grassy St - 1
Raw Taste – very sweet, fresh and grassy, with a nice peppery, oily quality. St -1
Raw Heat – Not too hot. Ht - 1
Broiled Nose – Notable tanginess when cooked, still held its grassy, sweet, caramel nature. St -1
Broiled Taste – Tangy, sweet and slightly burnt, in a good way. St - 1
Broiled Heat - None

Raw Nose – buttery, cinnamon, grassy and slightly hot, really an amazing aroma. St -2
Raw Taste – Texture is the difference with raw leeks, they are usually a bit too oily to serve raw. Burnt, green pepper, buttery, sweet. St -4
Raw Heat – Just a bit hot. Ht - 1
Broiled Nose – Very mild and uniquely floral scent
Broiled Taste – Sweet, buttery pear, really interesting and different than most onions. Melts in your mouth.
Broiled Heat – none


Raw Nose – mild butter, sweetness St - 2
Raw Taste – buttery, peachy very mild and interesting. Mine were a bit old; try this test with fresher ones.
Raw Heat – mild Ht - 1
Broiled Nose – Really interesting, sherry aroma. St - 2
Broiled Taste - Quite a lot sweeter than raw, tangy, melon taste was really cool. St - 2
Broiled Heat – None


Raw Nose – mild buttery St - 1
Raw Taste – Didn’t try
Raw Heat - Didn’t try
Broiled Nose – Gorgeous nutty, buttery aroma
Broiled Taste – Melt in your mouth buttery, caramel, sweet as hell, great texture and look.
Broiled Heat – None

White, fresh from the farmers market with green stem attached still, medium sized
Raw Nose – mild, clean and grassy St - 1
Raw Taste –mild floral, cinnamon, very clean St - 1
Raw Heat – mild Ht - 1
Broiled Nose – nutty, caramel, butter. St - 1
Broiled Taste – Very subtle, mostly buttery and quite sweet
Broiled Heat – slight bite Ht - 1

Bullet, pink and torpedo shaped, medium sized from farmers market.
Raw Nose – clean (very fresh onion) and nutty St - 1
Raw Taste – clean and peppery, no need to soak this one, great in salads. St - 2
Raw Heat – mild pepper bite Ht - 2
Broiled Nose – bitter, earthy, grassy, very rich aroma St - 3
Broiled Taste – mild, clean, caramel with a bit of sweetness
Broiled Heat – None

Yellow Storage
Raw Nose – Hot as hell with an interesting aroma of popcorn. St - 4
Raw Taste – Sour, green pepper, spicy, you can really cry for this one. St – 2 Ht - 4
Raw Heat – Hawt. St - 3
Broiled Nose – mild and caramel St - 2
Broiled Taste – This is the work horse of all cooking onions, perfect for any stock. When cooked it presents its sweetness and gets nice and buttery. Left is a tiny bit of its original bite.
Broiled Heat – Ht -1


Raw Nose – wine, sour, earthy, very, very hot. This was the strongest onion of the lot. St - 4
Raw Taste – green peppery, hot, sweet. I would soak this one in water before serving raw.
Raw Heat – HOT! Ht - 4
Broiled Nose – sweet tomato-ish, burnt and still a bit of sulphur/heat left. This onion must have been older. St - 3
Broiled Taste – very sweet, buttery and light caramel, bit of heat still left, good if you need that in a recipe
Broiled Heat – Ht - 2

Shallot, golden

Raw Nose –I couldn’t even smell anything, but it was sooo bloody hot, the sulphur knocked me on my ass.
Raw Taste – Bitter, peppery, clean but too hot to be pleasant
Raw Heat- Ht - 4
Broiled Nose – bitter, sour, peppery, caramel, quite strongly St - 3
Broiled Taste – mild, buttery, slight caramel medium sweetness
Broiled Heat – None

We have a billion varieties of alliums on the planet and each flavour profile will change depending on size, age of the onion & growing conditions. So, it’s good to get to know the onions of your region.

There are a few helpful rules of thumb with onions in general. Fresh onions tend to be sweet; storage onions are hotter and stronger in flavour, usually. Sweet onions are clean and sweetest tasting when bought in their growing season Spring to early Fall depending on the variety. The heat of an onion is mellowed with cooking. Cooking onions through broiling or simmering in butter releases their sweetness and makes them taste like caramel. To soften the sulphurous bite of any onion, soak in water for 15 min after slicing (great to tone down any raw onion for a salad or on a burger). Green onions and chives impart a grassy, fresh taste to any dish. Scallions are just the white bulb of a green onion (many people won’t agree with me on this one). Shallots were the hottest of all the onions raw, it burned! Bermuda, Texas, Maui, Vidalia, Walla Walla onions are all speciality sweet onions that are grown is specific regions of the world. Watch these, some of them are just marketing ploys and you could find an onion just as interesting at your local farmers market for cheaper.

The other major quality of an onion that seems obvious, but bears examining is their shape and texture. Raw onions tend to have crispness to them, the fresher the onion the more crisp. Storage onions can be a bit tough and are best cooked. The older the onion is the more shape it will hold as it cooks which could be desirable depending on the chef. Sweet or newly picked onions soften easily when cooked and will melt in your mouth if you caramelize them, quite an amazing event in itself. Small onions like shallots and pearl onions are a textural wonder when peeled and cooked whole; and they look pretty too. I love pearl onions in any stew, they are so sweet.

You see, this is a really complex issue. Onions are as varied as the wind. Really, you are fairly safe to substitute any onion called for in a recipe for any other that you like and I would encourage you to try out different varieties. If you do the bare minimum and note the sweetness and heat level of your local onions and use them in your recipes accordingly, you’ll be laughing.

If you want to know everything there is to know about onions, this is a really interesting cookbook…

Onions, onions,onions. Delicious recipes for the world’s favorite secret ingredient. By Linda and Fred Griffith, Chapters Publishing 1994

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