The onion (Allium cepa) is a member of the family Alliaceae, which also includes garlic (A. sativum), leeks (A. porrum), shallots (A. ascalonicum), and chives (A. schoenoprasum). Onions were formerly classified in the family Amaryllidaceae, which includes amaryllis, daffodils, and other bulb plants; they are now considered to be between the amaryllids and the lily family (Liliaceae).

Onions appear like any other bulb, consisting of a leafy region at the top (which is often removed or dead before marketing); a thickened, layered, succulent region toward the bottom, which usually grows underground but is, in fact, a stem; and a basal plate at the bottom, from which fibrous roots grow. Green onions (scallions) and chives come from the leafy region; for most onions, garlic, and leeks, the edible portion (or at least the most commonly eaten portion) is the bulb.

History

The onion has a very disputed origin, as it is not easily preserved for archaeological purposes. Some say the onion first appeared in central Asia; others claim that Iran and Pakistan (further west) are more likely. It is known, however, that the onion has appeared in the Mediterranean region as far back as 5000 years ago, and that there are records of both onions and garlic in the Pentateuch, the earliest-written books of the Bible (reputedly). The Egyptians actually worshipped the onion as a symbol of eternal life, stemming from its "circle-within-a-circle structure"; onions were often left in the pyramids, and Pharaoh Ramses IV was mummified with onions in his eye sockets. In the 6th century BC, the Indians spoke of the value of onions as medicine, citing them as diuretics and good for digestion, the heart, eyes and joints. The Romans also enjoyed onions, often carrying them with them on journeys. In the Middle Ages, onions were used for everything from snakebite cures to rent payments. The Pilgrims carried onions to the Americas, only to find that the Native Americans already had their own wild onions.

Growing and Caring for Onions

Onions grow well throughout the continental United States, and in most temperate climates. There are certain varieties that only grow well in certain climates, though, so be sure to read packaging or accompanying literature carefully before planting. Onions are usually planted as soon as they can get into the ground; the length of the day affects bulb growth, so be sure to get them in the ground early enough that they can establish themselves before bulbing. Onions require frequent irrigation and weed maintenance, as they grow shallowly and compete poorly with other plants.

Harvest green onions anytime after the tops grow above 6 inches; larger green onions will be more pungent than smaller ones. Any bulb that has sent up a flower stalk should be harvested and used immediately; these do not store well. Allow the tops to fall over before pulling onions; harvesting too early results in small onions that do not store well. Instead, when the tops are sufficiently dry, pull bulbs in the morning and allow to dry till mid-afternoon (don't leave them out too long or that whole drying thing won't work). Then, you can braid the tops together or just raise the onions with a screen for a few weeks to cure them. After they've cured, you can cut the tops off and store in a cool, dry place with decent circulation. Onions will last for several months, but check them every once in a while and remove any that have gone soft or started to rot.

Purchasing and Storing Onions

Always buy onions that are firm, well colored (never black -- it's often a sign of rot), and that smell like onions (they pick up other scents and flavours fairly easily). Again, always store in a cool, dry place. They prefer to be in the dark, as light can discolor them and occasionally can encourage regrowth. Keep in mind that onions purchased in grocery stores have often been sitting around for a few months already, so try not to buy too many at once, intending to keep them forever; they'll either go bad or start growing on you. Onions can also be sliced and frozen, but I'd only use them for cooking afterwards, since freezing tends to cause things to lose some of their visual appeal.

Types of Onions and Their Uses

Onions have been cultivated in a number of ways, from the tiny pearl onion to the large, sweet Vidalias. The newer sweet varieties have been bred to reduce the sulfuric compounds present (which normally give raw onions that bite, and make your eyes sting). As such, they are much sweeter than their ordinary companions when eaten raw. However, cooking breaks down the sulfuric compounds, and as such, an ordinary Spanish onion may be much sweeter than a Vidalia when cooked.

White, yellow (Spanish) and red onions are the standard types of onions. These onions range from mild to sharp in flavour, and can be used for anything from salads to most cooked dishes to a delicate garnish for a dish.

Green onions (or scallions) are mild to pungent in flavour, depending on the size, and are often eaten raw or in salads, or lightly cooked in various dishes.

Leeks are very mild in flavour, and as such, accompany other vegetables or other dishes nicely. They make a wonderful soup, and are also excellent when braised in butter as a side dish.

Shallots are also mild in flavour, with a hint of garlic taste to them. They are excellent when used as a flavouring in meat and vegetable dishes.

Pearl onions are often sweet in flavour (though they can be quite strong, depending on the variety), and are often used in vegetable dishes and as a garnish. The onions used as cocktail garnishes are often pearl onions of a stronger variety to lend a stronger flavour to the drink.

There are dozens of hybrid varieties of sweet onions, including Bermuda, Maui Sweet, Walla Walla, Texas Sweets (or 1015s, named for the date they should be planted), Vidalias, Carzalia, Sweet Imperial, and so on. These onions are excellent eaten raw, or very lightly cooked to emphasize their sweet and mild taste.

Cooking Tips

Recipes Featuring Onions
Sources:

http://www.sunspiced.com/ohistory.html
http://www.onions-usa.org/ -- the National Onion Association
http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/veggies/onion1.html -- from the "Watch Your Garden Grow" online guide
http://www-ang.kfunigraz.ac.at/~katzer/engl/generic_frame.html?Alli_cep.html
http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07614.html
How To Read a French Fry and Other Stories of Intriguing Kitchen Science by Russ Parsons
http://www.shallots.com

Folk Names: Oingum, Onyoun, Unyoun, Yn-leac
Gender/Planet/Element Associations: Masculine/Mars/Fire
Divine Association: Isis

Ritual Uses:

According to some ancient authorities, the onion was worshipped in some cities in ancient Egypt, and was sometimes invoked while taking oaths. During their winter solstice, revellers often wore onions around their necks.

Uses In Folk Magic:

    Protection
  • Take a small white onion, stick it full of black-headed pins, and place it in a window. This will guard your home against the intrusion of evil.
  • The flowers are decorative and protective, and can be dried and placed in the home for an unusual and attractive protective amulet.
  • Carried, the onion gives protection against venemous beasts.
  • In ancient Egypt, onions were included in charms to keep ghosts away from children.
  • Grown in pots or in the garden onions shield against evil.
    Exorcism
  • Halved or quartered onions, placed in the house, will absorb negativity and evil, as well as disease.
    Healing
  • Rub the cut edge of an onion against the afflicted part of the body, visualizing the disease going into the onion. Then destroy the onion by burning it or smashing it to pieces to be buried.
  • Settlers in New England hung strings of onions over doorways to guard against infections, and a cut onion placed beneath the kitchen sink has long been used for the same purpose.
  • To cure warts, rub them with a piece of onion and throw over your right shoulder. Walk away without looking back.
  • A large red onion tied to the bedpost protects its occupants against sickness, and aids in recuperation.
    Prosperity
  • Never throw onion skins and peelings onto the ground; if you do, you throw away your prosperity. Instead, burn them in the fireplace or cookstove to attract riches.
    Prophetic Dreams
  • An onion placed beneath the pillow can produce prophetic dreams. If you are faced with making a decision, scratch your options on onions, one to each onion. Place them in the dark. The first one that sprouts answers you.
    Lust
  • Some ancient authorities state that when eaten, the onion 'provokes venery', i.e. produces lust.
    General
  • Magical knives and swords are purified by rubbing their blades with cut fresh onions.
  • If you throw an onion after a bride, you'll throw away her tears.
  • Onions are eaten to boost protective armor, which is created by the energy flow of the body. The sharper the taste, the more effective the onion will be.

Sources:

  • Cunningham, Scott. Cunningham's Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs. St. Paul: Llewellyn Publications, 1998.
  • A Kitchen Witches' Guide to Vegetables. "Kitchen Witchery". www.geocities.com/Athens/Delphi/4536/WiseWomansCottage/kwveggies.html. Accessed: 21 December 2001.

Cutting an onion

You'd be surprised, but cutting an onion without proper technique is a messy, smelly, and tearful experience, here's one way of doing it well.

Tools needed

First of all, you're going to need a sharp knife. My favourite is a Global 5 1/4-Inch Santoku Knife which was given to me by a dear friend, but a good, sharp chef's knife should do the trick. If it isn't sharp, it won't cut through the onion cleanly, which causes more onion juice to disperse, and it causes you to cry more - so keep it sharp.

The second tool you need is a cutting board. Some chefs swear by wooden boards, but onions are notoriously smelly, and unless you have the luxury of having a wooden cutting board only for onions, it might be best to get a plastic one.

Finally, optionally, you might need some water and some lemon juice.

Cutting an onion into tiny pieces

For many things, the onion needs to be cut into tiny squares. The fact that an onion is multi-layered will help you here, but the trick is to put it to your best advantage, so you can make as many small pieces as possible, with the fewest cuts as possible.

For these instructions, imagine the onion as a planet (tip: meridians go from pole to pole, latitudes go around the equator), as it makes it a little easier to explain what we're doing. Try the following...

  1. Cut off the north and south pole, discard the poles
  2. Place the onion on now-flat south pole, and cut the onion in half through both poles
  3. Peel the skin off the onion
  4. Place the onion on its flat side, and make cuts along its latitude, ensuring you don't cut all the way through. This can be achieved by holding the knife at a slight angle, leaving a small gap closest to you when you're making the cuts.
  5. Turn the onion 90 degrees, and make cuts along its maridian, this way cutting all the way through. This should leave you with tiny squares.
  6. The last remaining bit of onion will have to be cut into more pieces where you didn't cut all the way through in step 4, but save up these pieces for last if you're cutting a lot of onions, and you'll save even more time

The reason for not cutting all the way through in step 4 is so the onion keeps its integrity, which a) gives you something to hold on to while you're cutting, and b) means that you don't have to hunt down little pieces and re-cut them.

Less crying

Why onions make you cry is covered separately, but there are a few tips you can follow to reduce the amount of tears coming to your eyes - some of them work, some are old wives' tales, but it's worth giving them a shot until you find one that works for you!

  • Keep your knife sharp
  • Peel the onion under water
  • Wet your hands and your knife before cutting the onion
  • Briefly put the onions in the freezer before cutting them
  • Breathe through your mouth instead of through your nose
  • Wet your forehead and cheeks before cutting the onion

Getting the smell off your hands

Onions smell strongly, and the smell can seem really difficult to get off. Again, a couple of tips:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly before you handle an onion
  • Wash your hands immediately after you've cut the onion
  • Put lemon juice on your hands after you've washed them to neutralise the smell

-30-

On"ion (?), n. [F. ognon, fr. L. unio oneness, unity, a single large pearl, an onion. See One, Union.] Bot.

A liliaceous plant of the genus Allium (A.cepa), having a strong-flavored bulb and long hollow leaves; also, its bulbous root, much used as an article of food. The name is often extended to other species of the genus.

Onion fish Zool., the grenadier. -- Onion fly Zool. a dipterous insect whose larva feeds upon the onion; especially, Anthomyia ceparum and Ortalis flexa. -- Welsh onion. Bot. See Cibol. -- Wild onion Bot., a name given to several species of the genus Allium.

 

© Webster 1913.

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