The Onion Family
- What is the difference between a shallot and a scallion?
- Is there a difference between green onions and scallions (or are people calling them scallions just being a trifle snooty)?
- Red onions look purple to me. Are there red onions and purple onions?
Members of the onion family are vital to flavorful cooking. But before you throw a big old reunion and invite the entire clan, it is a good idea to learn the differences between the different family members so you use the right one at the right time. Just like the personalities of your kinfolk, onion relatives vary widely, from mild to “in-your-face,” so sit back and meet the family.
YELLOW ONIONS: The most common onion around is the yellow onion. Considered to be “all-purpose,” the taste of yellow onions can be described as a balance of sweetness and astringency. I always have a supply of yellow onions on hand and rarely go a day without using at least part of one. These are my basic cooking onions. The longer yellow onions cook, the sweeter they become. The cooking (or carmelization process) brings out the natural sugars. The meaty layers of the yellow onion make it the perfect candidate for onion rings (which you can make on a low carb diet, if you use soy flour!), and it’s a good choice for topping a burger. Some of the most well-known varieties include the candy hybrid (flattened with tight skin), walla walla sweet (golden yellow skin with round bulbs), granex yellow hybrid (flattened bulbs with light yellow skin), Texas supersweet (large bulbs with light yellow skin), yellow ebenezer (flattened bulbs with golden skin and light yellow flesh), savannah sweet (can range from having golden yellow skin to off-white flesh), and sweet spanish hybrid (light yellow skin and flesh). Don’t even get me started on Vidalia onions — I can eat those babies by the slice with just a little sweetened mayo during their peak season. Divine! The link between the assortment of yellow onions is, of course, their incredibly sweet flavor, but be aware they also tend to be much more perishable. Consider storing them in your refrigerator unless you’re like me and go through them quickly enough that there is no worry about perishability.
WHITE ONIONS: The next closest sibling to the yellow onion is the white onion. Think of the white onion as the middle child. Known to have a sharper and more pungent flavor than their yellow contemporaries, they also tend to have thinner, more papery skin. Personally, I’m not a big fan, but suit yourself. Among the varieties of white onions are the snow white hybrid (round bulb), ‘white’ white (round inside and out, it has thin skin and stores well), white granex (ideal for warmer climates, white inside and out), and burgundy (white flesh with a mild tang. Mostly used in the south.)
RED ONIONS: Yes, these suckers look purple to me, too, but they are officially known as red onions and they are wonderful for the vibrancy they can add to dishes. Need a pop of color somewhere in your meal? Add slices of the deep, purple-colored onion to make your dish more aesthetically pleasing. These onions are similar to yellow in many ways, but rather than having a sweetness to them, they’re more tender and have a relatively milder flavor than either the yellow or white onion. Some find that eating red onions raw can have a too harsh astringent taste, so a good tip to weaken the flavor is to allow the onions to soak in water before using. Who knew?!? These are my go-to onions for most recipes that call for onion and are not going to involve cooking it (unless the recipe specifically asks for green onions, which is also typically used uncooked.) If I’m going to use red onion slices in a salad, I’ll sometimes presoak them for an hour or more in whatever salad dressing I plan to use (assuming it’s some type of vinaigrette — soaking in a creamy dressing isn’t going to accomplish much). The varieties of red onions include the giant red (dark red skin, white flesh with red ribbons throughout), salad red (small oblong bulbs, purple skin with white flesh), and red delicious (sweet and crispy white flesh with red ribbons).
SHALLOTS: There’s something about shallots – maybe because of the likeness to their garlic cousins, or the way the word ‘shallot’ rolls off the tongue – that tends to give people a sense of urgency. Honestly, that’s what I’m told! Shaped like small brown onions with papery skin and a pale lavender color inside, shallots are unlike the common onion in that they grow in clusters rather than a single bulb. The flavor of a shallot is very delicate (at least in my opinion), with garlicky overtones. I tend to use them when I don’t want the onion flavor to overwhelm whatever I am making. They are small to begin with, so the temptation is to mince them very finely. Don’t go overboard with your knife because the shallot could disappear from a dish completely if minced too finely. I cook with shallots. I can’t think of any of the recipes I make where I use them raw.
CIPPOLINI ONIONS: Cippolini onions are the traditional Italian onions that are known for their flat and oval shape with brown papery skin. The size of cippolini onions is comparable to shallots, and the flavor is sweet yet savory, making them great for braising. When in Florence, Italy, we learned to make carmelized cippolini onions with a dash of balsamic vinegar thrown in for good measure. The taste is fabulous, but at least where I live they are not easy to find. One more thing you should know — they are hard (perhaps impossible) to make pretty after they are carmelized. Hide them under your slice of pork roast and call it good.
LEEKS: The largest member of the onion family would be the leek. The resemblance of leeks to giant scallions can be confusing or alarming. They look like they’re props for an upcoming scifi flick, Attack of the Giant Scallions. Often, they’ve got mud, dirt or sand in them, so I find that it works well to slice them thinly and put all the slices into a colander to rinse well. They have a unique and delicate flavor all their own. My leek soup is one of the easiest soups I make, but highly satisfying because it’s so flavorful. If you haven’t used them before, try sauteeing sliced leeks in a little olive oil and using them in dishes where you normally would use another type of onion, such as in omelettes or meatloaves or casseroles. Experiment!
SCALLIONS News flash! The biggest misconception about green onions (also known as scallions) is that they’re a type of onion all on their own. In actuality, green onions are the immature plants of ANY bulb onion. Gasp! So, when I plant my onions in the vegetable garden, I stagger the plantings so that at any one time I can harvest either mature onions or green onions. In case you’re wondering, both the white and green parts of the scallions are edible. Plus, when they’re sliced thinly they’re really good-looking as a garnish. Some people prefer more white, less of the green; others are just the opposite. Play around with them and see what you think, but whatever you decide, be sure to include these on your must-use list.