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2003 MHS Herb of the Year - Onions, Onions, Onions

Onions, Onions, Onions
Edible Alliums Cookbook By Debbie Cravens

Allium cepa is the botanical name for the humble bulb onion. This species includes three groups, differentiated by the way they reproduce. The Common Onion group includes most of the onions eaten in the world. They generally produce seeds. These onions are the focus of this article.

According to the book, "Onions, Onions, Onions," the National Onion Association divides onions into two types – fresh onions and storage onions. The fresh onions, high in water and sugar content, are coveted for their sweet, mild flavor. These onions don’t store well and should be used as soon after harvesting as possible. Vidalias, Mauis, Oso, and Walla Walla are examples of fresh onions. Storage onions are available through the fall and winter. They are stronger in taste, usually smaller, have the traditional onion heat and keep well.

Both fresh and storage onions come in three colors: yellow, varieties that have been developed over the years, mature onions come in an enormous array of sizes. You can find a mature Allium cepa as tiny as a grape or as big as a cabbage, from 1/8-inch pearl onions to 6-pound giants.

Tasting Onions and their Culinary Uses
Yellow Storage Onions are the most common cooking onions. They are hot and usually will make you cry. They range in size from small to medium-large, but their heat does not vary with size. Their heat does disappear with cooking. This onion is the workhorse of cookery – good in any heated dish.

White Storage Onions are hot but with a slightly sharper, cleaner flavor than yellow. They also tend to have a slightly shorter shelf life because they lack the pigment that afford them protection against mold and have more water than yellow onions.

Spanish Onions are a large yellow storage onion, as round as a globe. They usually have a slightly higher water content, and so generally are less hot, sweeter, somewhat crisper and more perishable than the storage onion.

Red Onions are similar to Spanish onions in their characteristics. Their flavor is sharp, sweet and pungent; their texture is a bit coarser, with a very thick wrapper. Red onions cook to an unappetizing grayish brown so use them only in salads or quick-cook dishes that allow them to maintain their color.

Pearl onions are between 1-inch and 1-1/4 inches in diameter with a thin, white wrapper. They are crisp, with a surprising sweetness, and only after chewing does a little sharpness kick in. Pearl onions are available both as white or pink onions. They are useful for cooking whole in stews and ragouts, for marinating and for pickling.

Growing Onions
Onions can be grown from seed transplants or sets. Because onions have very shallow root systems, fertile, well-drained and well-worked soil is a must. Work soil amendments into the soil several months before sowing seed or setting out plants or sets. Onions grow best in full sun.

Onion bulb formation is controlled by day length, so selecting suitable cultivars for your area is crucial. In Wisconsin, choose “long-day” cultivars as opposed to “short-day” cultivars for the South.

Begin onion seeds in late January or February to have well-grown seedlings ready for transplanting to the garden as soon as the weather permits. Sow seeds 1/4-inch deep in a moist, sterile, soil-less potting mix. Keep the mix between 60-70 degrees until the seeds germinate Place lights 6-8 inches above the pots and leave them on for at least 12 hours a day, raising the lights as the plants grow. Fertilize every two weeks with a 10-10-10 liquid fertilizer used at half-strength. When plants are ready for the garden, be sure to harden them off before you set them in the garden – bring the plants outside a few hours a day increasing the time they are outside until they stay outside overnight.

Alternatively you may grow onions from sets. Look for 1/2- inch diameter sets since the larger ones often go to seed before producing decent-sized bulbs, and anything smaller may not grow well.

To harvest onions, use the back of a rake to horizontally bend over yellowed onion tops. A day or so later, when the tops turn brown, pull or dig the bulbs on a sunny day, and leave them to dry in the sun. Lay the tops of one row over the bulbs of another to help prevent sunscald. When the outer skins are dry, wipe off any soil and remove the tops. Store in a cool, dry place; hang them in mesh bags or braids in an airy area.