Onions are the workhorses of the kitchen, each with its own flavor profile—from sweet to pungent—to suit your culinary needs.
Credit: Photo: Oxmoor House

SEASON: Available all year, but seasons vary around the country. You’ll usually find fresh onions in spring and summer, identified by their thin layer of papery skin. Their high moisture content gives them a milder flavor. Onions harvested in cool weather are known as storage onions; they have a pungent flavor, several layers of thick skin, and a moisture content slightly lower than that of fresh onions.

CHOOSING: Look for onions that are heavy and firm with tight, dry skins and no bruises, signs of sprouting, or smell (they release their fragrance when bruised or cut).

STORING: Store in a cool, dry, dark place with lots of air circulating. Never suffocate them in plastic bags—they’ll rot. Storage onions can last months; fresh ones, 30 to 90 days.

GROWING: Onions are pretty inexpensive to purchase in stores, but the beauty of growing your own is always having them at your fingertips. Dash out the door to harvest as green onions in the younger stages, or let them develop into larger bulbs for fresh eating or storage.

You’ll find storage onions in shades of white, yellow, and red. They’ll keep the longest if properly dried and stored. Sweet onions, such as Bermuda, Vidalia, Texas sweets, and Walla Walla, are best for eating fresh. Perennial multiplier onions, such as Evergreen Long White, are a wonderful garden option—they’re planted whole in the fall or late winter and divide in the spring. Just pull what you need, and replant what you don’t. You may never run out.

The amount of daylight your garden receives will determine the type of onion you should plant: long-day, short-day, or intermediate-day. Short-day onions develop bulbs in no more than 12 hours of daily light for a certain period of time. So, if planted in the north where summer days are longer, these plants form extremely small bulbs prematurely. Long-day onions need 14 to 16 hours, so they’ll fail to form bulbs in areas with shorter summer days. Intermediate-day onions require 13 to 15 hours. Getting great bulbs in your garden isn’t hard; just start with the right variety for your region, and plant at the right time in spring. Consult your local garden centers or Cooperative Extension office for help selecting the right types.

FUN FACTS: There are so many old wives' tales about how to avoid tears when chopping onions that it's hard to know where to begin. Common sense should tell you that the sharper your knife and the quicker you chop, the fewer tears you'll shed. Other, more dubious, tricks include: freezing the onion for 20 minutes before chopping, biting down on two kitchen matches with the sulpher tips positioned under your nose, holding a wooden spoon between your teeth, chopping near the stovetop fan, and--if you don't mind looking a little like a mad scientist―wearing a pair of safety goggles.

LOOKS: There are many different varieties of onion to fit your various cooking needs. The type used most often in cooking is the yellow onion. Green onions, or scallions, are often used as garnishes or finishing touches to spice up a dish. The pearl onion is a small pickling onion. Vidalia onions hail from the rich soils of Georgia and are known to be extremely sweet and juicy. A few other types include: Bermuda, Spanish, Italian, globe, Maui, Walla Walla, and boiling onions.

EATING: Onions can be sauteed, boiled, fried, or served raw.

BENEFITS: Onions contain a decent amount of vitamin C and other trace minerals. You will also be able to keep your enemies at a distance with your harsh, post-onion breath. To prevent losing your friends as well, eat several sprigs of vinegar- or salt-dipped parsley. Chewing on fennel seeds, coffee beans, or chlorophyll tablets might also do the trick.