The tale of the onion
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 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.