The tale of the onion

Manitoba Gardener Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Heather Klein

What do you smell when you pick up an onion? Noth­ing. Now slice into it and the pun­gent aroma is im­me­di­ate as your eyes be­gin to wa­ter. As with many veg­eta­bles, the onion flavour doesn’t de­velop un­til its cells are dam­aged by slic­ing, chop­ping or cook­ing. The in­ten­sity of the flavour is de­ter­mined by two fac­tors: the va­ri­ety of the onion (called the cul­ti­var) and the sul­fur con­tent of the soil. The higher the sul­fur con­tent, the more the flavour in­ten­si­fies.

It turns out the onions are su­per sen­si­tive to light and tem­per­a­ture. They love the light, and need lots of it to reach their full size.

There are hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties of onions, how­ever they are gen­er­ally grouped into two broad cat­e­gories: mild spring onions and pun­gent stor­age onions.

Mild spring onions are planted in the fall and har­vested in early spring. Stor­age onions are planted in the spring and har­vested in late sum­mer or fall, which makes them a more pop­u­lar choice for most Cana­dian gar­dens. These are the onions that we store in a cool dry place and use all win­ter.

The Sci­ence

The sci­ence be­hind the in­tense flavour of the onion is some­what com­plex; let’s just say the more you dam­age onion cells by chop­ping, cook­ing etc., the more in­tensely it en­hanced their savoury, meaty flavour.


The onion's his­tory is widely de­bated. Some think that it orig­i­nated in Asia and some be­lieve the Baby­lo­ni­ans were the first to do­mes­ti­cate it. It is ev­i­dent, how­ever, that onions have been around for thou­sands of years. Early so­ci­eties be­came de­pen­dent on them as they were easy to grow in any kind of soil and any type of ecosys­tem. Their long stor­age ca­pa­bil­ity made them ex­tremely use­ful.

Given all their qual­i­ties, it is no sur­prise that onions be­came a part of the reli­gious cer­e­monies of sev­eral an­cient civ­i­liza­tions, the most ev­i­dent be­ing Egypt where they were sym­bols of eter­nity and end­less life. They were of­ten used in the buri­als of Pharaohs as an im­por­tant part of the mum­mi­fi­ca­tion process.

In an­cient Greece, sol­diers and athletes be­lieved onions gave them strength from the gods. As Europe en­tered the Mid­dle Ages, onions were one of the main sources of food and medicine and were of­ten more valu­able than money.

Once the Age of Dis­cov­ery be­gan,

onions were car­ried to the four cor­ners of the world and ac­cord­ing to some records they may have been the first veg­etable that was ever planted by the early colonists.


When grow­ing onions, re­mem­ber that they are heavy feed­ers and need con­stant nour­ish­ment to de­velop. Add ni­tro­gen fer­til­izer when you plant them and make sure that you side dress them ev­ery few weeks un­til the bul­bing process be­gins.

How to use the onion

Scal­lions: They pro­vide a gen­tle onion flavour. They are of­ten used as ac­cents and are great in your green salad.

Spring onion: They may look like scal­lions; how­ever these are just very young stor­age onions, pulled be­fore they have too much in­ten­sity.

Vi­dalia: These onions are only grown legally round Vi­dalia, Ge­or­gia. These are the mildest onions avail­able and are much loved. Imag­ine them in your favourite mac and cheese or adding the per­fect flavour to potato chow­der.

Yel­low onions: This is the clas­sic onion. They are our favourite to grow as they keep so well through our long Cana­dian win­ters.

White onions: Slightly sweeter in flavour than a yel­low onion; how­ever they don’t store quite as well

Red onions: These are our favourite to eat raw. They look and taste great in sal­ads and of course are the per­fect top­ping to your sum­mer bar­be­cued burger with their pun­gent, spicy flavour.

Shal­lots: These are won­der­ful in clas­sic sauces and pop­u­lar in many Asian dishes. Their flavour will intensify the longer they are stored.

Pearl onion: Or­der your favourite cock­tail and it’s sure to ar­rive with a pick­led pearl onion. They are best used creamed or roasted, as it brings out their mild, sweet flavour.

Giant Onions: What would you do with a 16-pound onion? Many gar­den­ers are tak­ing on the chal­lenge of grow­ing giant onions. The Kel­sae Sweet Giant Onion holds the Guin­ness World Record for the largest onion at 15 pounds 5.5 ounces. De­spite its size it has a unique mild, sweet flavour.

The pun­gency of the onion is greatly af­fected by the level of sulphur in the soil.

Onions are prized for their ca­pac­ity to sur­vive long term stor­age.

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