Native to Asia, these bulbs grow underground and are used to add depth and flavour to savoury dishes. They are part of the Allium family related to leeks and chives. Dry onions have fresh, juicy flesh, papery skin and a pungent flavour with astringent qualities. These diminish the longer you cook them and they get sweeter, too.
How you cook onions is a really important technique to understand. Depending on the dish you’re creating you need to think about how you want your onions to feature, from caramelising them, to cooking them until they turn a dark brown (not burnt) to give depth and flavour, or nice and chunky so they feature as part of the end dish. Raw, baked, steamed, sautéed, deep fried, you can do it all with onions and how you do it is all very important stuff!
Types of onions
There are hundreds and they all vary in pungency. When you buy them, make sure they are firm and clean without any mould patches or bruising. And, of course, make sure they’re the right one for the dish:
These tend to be the most commonly used and have a golden skin with a white flesh. Usually hot and pungent. Brown onions - Smaller than the yellow ones and more pungent; perfect for cooking with.
Fairly large in size with a white, papery skin. They have a strong assertive onion flavour and are good for baking or stuffing.
The biggest of all of the onions with a brown skin, these are mild and sweet so they’re great for salads.
A wonderful dark purple skin with a beautiful white and purple flesh. Milder in taste and taste fab in salsas and in salads.
These are small and white with a long green stem that is used along with the bulb. These are immature onions that are enjoyed before the bulb fully matures. Mild in flavour, they are delicious when used raw in salads (for colour as well as flavour).
Shallots are a subspecies of onion and are much smaller with a very delicate flavour. These are very important in French cooking!
Onions are much more pungent when raw and the volatile oils released from onions are rich in Vitamins B and C, a whole host of minerals such as phosphorus and Magnesium, and they are a great source of folic acid too.
Some of these components are destroyed by heat, so eating raw onions is good for you (but maybe just not on a first date!) Some of us with sensitive tummies can find raw onions difficult to digest - so be aware.
Historically onions were used as a preventative medicine for cholera and the plague. They are also know to have anit-inflammatory and anti-histamine properties too. The Romans used onions to help soothe symptoms of the common cold but more interestingly gladiators would use them as a rub down to tone up their muscles (oohhhh)!
Over the years onions have also been used to help with asthma, the active properties have come from a compound called allyl propyl disulphide. This has similar properties to insulin in that it can also help regulate and balance blood sugar levels but it's always best to see your doctor if you are having any problems related to this.
For more exciting information check out the infographic.
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