Do we ever really think about onions? Other than making us cry sometimes or being used to describe Shrek, we really don’t pay them too much attention. But the onion is actually one of the most widely used vegetables on the planet! I can’t really think of a culture that doesn’t have it as a staple in their diets. Way back when, in culinary school, my instructors made me and my classmates practice cutting onions over and over again until we ankle high in onion peels. So really now that I think of it, the onion is kind of a universal symbol of the kitchen and a true test of ones culinary skills.
Speaking of crying, do you know why onions make us cry? It’s not because they said something mean…although they do gossip more than most vegetables. Any way, its because of sulfur. Onions absorb a lot of sulfur from the soil they grow in. They also absorb a lot of water. This makes for a very sad, tearful storm when we cut into it. As the knife tears through the onion, the water aerosolizes and makes a cloud of sulfur. I have heard of a lot of methods to keep from crying ranging from special goggles, to just opening a window. The best method, by far, I have discovered is to have a reallllllllly sharp knife. If you could put on microscope goggles while you were cutting an onion, you would see that a dull knife doesn’t cut so much as it rips. The difference is that a good cut will gently pass through an onion, where as a rip will tear into the vegetable, thus creating a noxious cloud of sulfur. So keep your knives sharp, or else you will be crying about it later.
Which brings me to knife work. I’m not saying that there is a right or wrong way to cut an onion. ..no wait, actually I am. Yes, another Shrek reference, onions are like ogres..or was it the other way around? Any way, onions have layers, and all those layers are kept in place by the root end, which is that fuzzy little nub at the back end. This end is important because keeping it in tact makes cutting an onion a much easier and enjoyable experience. So, when cutting an onion, lightly trim the roots away from the nub and trim off the tip on the other end. Now bisect the onion horizontally through root end so that there are two halves that have equal portions of root attaching all the layers. From here this also gives you an edge to peel off the skin. Now, you have two onion halves and can cut them properly in whatever way you want. My culinary teacher would be so proud of you right now!
And speaking of skin, don’t throw that skin away. Believe it or not, they actually have a lot of flavor in them. I like to tie them into parcels with herbs, spices, and other aromatics that can be used to flavor soups, sauces, or even grains like rice or quinoa. Or you could be making stock! But that’s another post…
Another trick that an onion has up it’s sleeves is that it can caramelize. It’s one of the only vegetables that can pull this off so wonderfully. To caramelize, cut and peel an onion as described. When cutting your desired shape, be it mince, julienne, dice, etc., keep in kind that a thin or small cut will yield onions that will almost melt, while larger cuts with yield a chewier bite. Both are delicious, depending on what you want to do with them. Set a pan on the stovetop and add four five tablespoons of oil on high heat. Once the pan is hot, add the onion and turn down to medium. Do not add salt as this will cause the onion to sweat out its liquid and it will simmer as opposed to caramelize. Keep a wooden spoon and a cup of water on hand and stir the onion in the pan, and eventually the onion will turn from crisp to soft. After five to ten minutes you will see some color form on both the onion and the pan. Pour a few drops of water where you see the color forming and scrape with a spoon. This is called deglazing, and is how to achieve ridiculously sweet and luscious caramelized onions. As you are deglazing, stir the onions around the pan to absorb the color and flavor. Keep caramelizing, deglazing, and stirring for as long as it takes for the onions to be completely soft and have no crunch left. As it takes a while to achieve the perfect caramelized onion, I like to make this ahead of time by the quart. My fridge almost always has caramelized onion in there somewhere. Caramelized onions can be used anywhere you would normally use an onion, except now they have a super-punch of flavor. They are also what makes French onion soup so magnificently delicious. They go great with eggs in the morning, or in salads sandwiches for lunch, or with a roast for dinner.
I have tried cooking without them, and I have to say that without the humble onion, most recipes lack depth of flavor. It’s almost funny how versatile onions are, and with a little understanding their full potential can be unlocked. You can rule the world…or at least the kitchen. Despite making me cry, I have a lot of love for onions. Hopefully you too can have a fulfilling relationship with them.