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All About Onions

Onions are a staple in kitchens around the world, adding flavour, colour, and texture to a vast array of dishes. They are also rich in history and offer several health benefits.

Origins and History

  • Onions are believed to have originated in Central Asia, possibly Iran and West Pakistan.  They have been cultivated for over 5,000 years and were one of the earliest cultivated crops due to their long shelf life, transportability, and adaptability to various climates and soils. In ancient times, onions were used for medicinal purposes, as currency, and even as gifts.

The humble onion is as indispensable to the culinary arts as butter or eggs—or for that matter, knives or plates.

It's the rare food that can be sweet, savoury, pungent and aromatic all at the same time, but that's what onions do. In a real sense, onions are what make food food—going beyond mere sustenance and making it enjoyable. Making it taste good.

Onions don't contribute much in the way of nutrition. A few vitamins and minerals, sure, but nothing that isn't far more abundant in other commonly available foods like rice or broccoli. Nor are onions functionally necessary for any recipe. If you took them away, everything would still work, it just wouldn't taste as good.

  A Culinary Luxury  

Thus, onions are a luxury, yet these small, brown, sulfurous orbs are cheap and plentiful and will grow just about anywhere, as evidenced by the fact that every style of cooking on earth features them.

Onions can be roasted, grilled, pickled, caramelized, battered and deep-fried, sliced thinly or chopped and served raw in salads, sandwiches, dips, or as a garnish for tacos, making them among the most versatile and ubiquitous ingredients in the culinary arts.

Onions make up a third of the classic mirepoix, a basic mixture of onions, carrots, and celery used to enhance the flavor of soups, stocks, and sauces, appearing under different names in different cuisines, such as the Italian soffritto, or the so-called "holy trinity" of Cajun cooking (which substitutes bell peppers for the carrots).

Onions are part of the genus Allium, and they're related to garlic, chives, shallots, and leeks. Both the bulb and the shoots are edible. Slicing onions release a sulfur-based vapor that irritates the eyes.

China produces the most onions of any country on earth, but they have 1.3 billion people to feed, so they use most of what they grow. Interestingly, the world's top onion exporter happens to be the Netherlands.

There are many different types of onions, each with its own unique flavor and culinary use. Here are some of the most common:

* **Yellow Onions:** These are the all-purpose onions that are most commonly used in cooking. They have a strong, pungent flavor that mellows when cooked.

* **White Onions:** These onions are similar to yellow onions, but they have a milder flavor and a thinner, more papery skin.

* **Red Onions:** These onions are known for their beautiful red color and slightly sweet flavor. They are often used raw in salads and salsas.

* **Sweet Onions:** These onions have a low sulfur content, which makes them much sweeter than other types of onions. They are often eaten raw or lightly cooked. Popular varieties include Vidalia, Walla Walla, and Maui onions.

* **Shallots:** These are small, elongated onions with a delicate flavor that is a cross between garlic and onion. They are often used in French cuisine.

* **Scallions (Green Onions):** These are immature onions that are harvested before the bulb has fully developed. They have a mild onion flavor and are often used as a garnish or in salads.

* **Leeks:** These are large, cylindrical onions with a mild, sweet flavor. They are often used in soups and stews.

These are just a few of the many different types of onions that are available. With so many options to choose from, you're sure to find the perfect onion for your next culinary creation.

Cheers, and have yourself a great weekend! Consider joining one of our online programs in Culinary & Pastry Arts and expand your cooking frontiers.

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