Previous Article WWWiz Home Next Article


Working With Onions–Vegetables to Cry For

Come, follow me by the smell,

Here are delicate onions to sell;

I promise to use you well.

They make the blood warmer,

You'll feed like a farmer;

For this is every cook's opinion,

No savoury dish without an onion;

But, lest your kissing should be spoiled,

Your onions must be thoroughly boiled;

Or else you may spare

Your mistress a share,

The secret will never be known:

She cannot discover

The breath of her lover,

But think it as sweet as her own.

--Jonathan Swift, Verses for Fruitwomen

By Tarla Fallgatter (

 The discoverer of the onion must have thanked his lucky stars for his find.  How much more delicious stews, rice–almost any dish–is with the addition of onions. They can be cooked in so many different ways–baked, roasted, caramelized, sautéed–and take on a completely different flavor with each technique.  My favorite way of cooking them, be it leeks, shallots or any variety of onion, is to caramelize them as described in the caramelized onion quesadilla recipe below.  Whenever I have part of an onion leftover from a recipe, I always caramelize it to extend its life and give it a delicious sweet flavor–you should try it too.

 Onion History

The ubiquitous onion has a long, distinguished history and, like garlic, has been endowed with healing properties and mystical significance.  For the ancient Egyptians, the onion's nine encircling layers represented eternity.  Two thousand years ago, Egyptian princes were reputed to have spent 90 tons of gold buying them just to keep the workmen laboring on the pyramids in good health and spirits.  That's a lot of gold and a whole lot of onions!  In dynastic Egypt, the combination of bread, raw onions and beer was

Throughout world history, onions have been thought of as food for the poor, since the strong odor and taste offended the palates of the wealthy.  Yet history also reveals that onions were grown in the gardens of kings, such as Ur-Nammu of Ur in 2100 B.C. 

 The onion's spherical shape and concentric rings made it a powerful symbol for the universe and for the sun god.  The round layers of the onion represented heaven, hell, earth and the universe.  The form of the onion was a powerful image of divine perfection. 

The vegetable itself was sometimes treated as a sacred object.  Some Egyptians would swear their oaths on an onion, as a guarantee of good faith.  Priests would not eat them, maybe as a sign of religious commitment or as a way of impressing the public with a feat of abstinence.  Mourners and worshipers would sometimes bring onions as funeral gifts during the Old Kingdom period (c. 2615 to 2175 B.C.).  A basket of onions was second only to bread as a valued offering.  Onions appear in chapel altar pictures; in fact, Egyptian craftsmen would sculpt several vegetable forms in precious metals for the priests to use as temple offerings to the gods.

Still, the most intriguing fact about the onion as it existed in Egypt is in its relationship to the afterlife.  According to James E. Harris and Kent R. Weeks, authors of X-Raying the Pharaohs:  ``They  (Egyptians) recognized death, of course, but for them it was not the final, absolute end.  Rather, it was the continuation of life in a different form.  What they enjoyed and found pleasant in this life they tried to take with them in the next.  To insure this, techniques of mummification were developed."

In this process, onions and garlic had both a spiritual and a physical role to play.  The body of a deceased person had to be preserved for eternity to insure a ``lasting home for the soul," and offerings, including food were placed in or near the tomb to be on hand in the afterlife.  Sometimes real food was used, but sometimes scenes or sculpture depicted the items, which became ``real" through rites of magic.  Some Egyptologists theorize that onions may have been used because their strong scent and/or magical powers would prompt the dead to breathe again.  Other Egyptologists believe it was because onions and garlic were known for their strong antiseptic qualities, which were construed as magical and would be handy in the afterlife.

We do not know exactly when the onion reached Greece.  According to Waverley Root in Food, by the time of the Athenian statesman Pericles (born c. 95 B.C.), the market of Athens was selling edible plants.  Most of these vegetables were expensive and sold in small quantities, but onions were abundant–and affordable.  That is probably why they were widely consumed, especially by the poor.  It may also be why they were fed to soldiers.

The Israelites partook of Egyptian onions before Moses let them into Canaan.  In the book of Numbers, in the story of the hardships of the odyssey, the Israelites speak fondly of the foods they had enjoyed and leeks, onions and garlic were among the six things mentioned.

Centuries later, Pliny the Elder, Rome's keen-eyed observer, wrote of Pompeii's onions before he was overcome and killed by the volcano's heat and fumes.  Excavators of the doomed city would later find gardens where, just as Pliny had said, onions had grown.  The bulbs had left behind telltale cavities in the ground.

From ancient times, onions have marched through history, a staple and universal foodstuff.  They remained that way until the dawn of science, awaiting the magic of contemporary botanists, who would make the humble onion blossom into a bewildering array of shapes and forms.

Today onions are still so important that they are incorporated into everyday sayings, i.e. the French sometimes say, ``Occupe toi de tes oignons"  (Mind your business.)

Folk Medicine

Throughout history, in many parts of Europe, especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkan countries, people believed that evil spirits caused diseases such as the plague.  Onions, and particularly garlic, were employed to cast spells, act as good luck charms and ward off the ``evil eye."  Onions and garlic were used to heal everything from plague and scurvy to burns, bee stings and athlete's foot.  Alexander the Great believed onions restored courage and so fed large quantities of them to his armies.  During the civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant used onion juice as an antiseptic to clean wounds.

Today, the value of onions can be empirically documented.  And it turns out onions are good for you!  The bulb onion is low in calories–1 medium onion contains only 38 calories–and high in flavor.  Onions are also high in fiber (1/2 cup cooked onions contains 1.6 grams fiber).

Many of the old home remedies are still being used throughout the world, and many of the old superstitions are turning out to be well founded.  Investigation shows that the eating of onions may help prevent not only the common cold but also more serious ailments.  Raw onions, when chewed for a short time, act as a strong antibacterial and antiviral instrument, sterilizing the mouth and throat.  In this way, they may be useful against digestive ailments.  Eventually, we may come to know whether it is better to eat onions raw or cooked and in what quantity for optimal benefit.  Until then, however, we appreciate every member of the onion family, different as they all are, for their unique and captivating qualities.


When you go to the market, all you really need to know is which onions will do what you want.  Do you want them sweet or hot?  Will they be sliced raw into a salad or caramelized for a pasta sauce?  Are you going to eat them on a hamburger or in a stew? 

Unless you possess a remarkably educated palate you can usually substitute one variety of onion for another with little discernible change in taste.  Small boiling onions work just as well as pearl onions, Spanish onion slices can be substituted for sweet onions on a hamburger and so it goes.

Because onions are seasonal, certain types may not always be available.  Storage onions can be found anytime, as can red and Spanish.  On the other hand, sweet onions are usually in markets only from April through the summer.

 One of my favorite appetizers is:

 Caramelized Onion Quesadillas

6 flour tortillas

3 medium yellow onions, very thinly sliced

2 Tbsp. olive oil

4 oz. shaved asiago cheese

 Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a nonstick saute pan, add the onions and toss with the oil to coat.  Cook 3 - 4 minutes or until the onions begin to wilt.  Turn the heat to low, place a piece a foil on top of the pan without sealing it and cook, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes, adding the extra oil if necessary.  Remove the foil and cook another 10 minutes or until the onions are golden brown.  Let cool completely.

Preheat the broiler and place the rack about 6 inches from the heat source.  Lay three flour tortillas on a large cookie sheet, divide the onions and cheese among them.  Top with remaining three tortillas and press down well to seal.  Broil 3 - 4 minutes on each side or until slightly brown and crisp.  Let cool slightly, then cut into 6 - 8 slices.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

MAKES:  18 - 24 slices

 Yellow Storage Onions 

The most common cooking onions, yellow storage onions are sold in red net bags.  They are hot and usually will make you cry.  They are a dry onion, with a heavy brown wrapper and little crispness.  Their heat disappears with cooking.  This onion is the workhorse of cookery–good in any heated dish or any other dish in which subtlety is not an issue.

 White Storage Onions

These onions are hot, but with a slightly sharper, cleaner flavor than yellows.  They also tend to have a slightly shorter shelf life because they lack the pigment that affords them protection against mold and because they have proportionally more water than the yellows.  They are most commonly used in Mexican cuisine.

Spanish 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 then the storage onion.  They have some heat–just enough to let you know that they mean business.  Spanish onions can substitute for specialty sweet onions out of season.

 Red Onions

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.  Uncooked, red onions make a handsome addition to salads of all types.  However, when cooked, these onions lose some of their color.

 Boiling Onions

Boiling onions are very small yellow or white storage onions, usually about two inches in diameter.  They will be hot to the taste before cooking and are best when left whole and boiled or simmered in a stew.


Pearl Onions

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.  Pearls are very good when marinated or pickled.


Specialty Sweet Onions

Specialty sweet onions are very high in water content, low in heat and high in sweetness.  They are extremely crisp and fairly perishable.  These are the onions that most often are sold under a regional name (Maui, Vidalia, Walla Walla and have a limited season.  Usually yellow, most are shaped like globes or slightly flattened globes.  These onions are excellent raw, delicate when cooked and they caramelize nicely.  Try them for your next onion rings.


Leeks have a tough green top that is discarded.  In flavor, the garden-variety leek is like an offbeat onion, very hot, coarse and chewy.  Leeks are best cooked.  When cooked, leeks develop a warm, oniony flavor.  When chopped and sauteed, they become almost buttery in texture.


Scallions have a white bulb that is mild in flavor and enjoyable both cooked and raw.  Scallions are a common ingredient in Chinese cuisine; the bulb is cooked to add flavor, the raw greens tops are chopped and sprinkled on at the end as a garnish.


Shallots, which are like tender, delicate onions in taste and aroma, come in a variety of sizes.  They make a superb base for sauces and a splendid addition to omelets.  Cooked whole, they hold their shape and caramelize beautifully, making them an excellent addition to anything braised or roasted.  Like the leek, the shallot is not for eating raw.

 Restaurant Note

The Meeting House (1701 Octavia/Bush, telephone:  (415) 922-6733 in San Francisco) serves a delicious romaine salad with grilled red onions (as well as other delicious dishes).  It is open for dinner and has a wonderful atmosphere. Don't miss it.

 Tarla Fallgatter is a well-known Orange County caterer, chef, teacher, restaurant consultant and kitchen tool manufacturer. She trained at Paris' Cordon Bleu, La Varenne, and Ecole Lenotre cooking schools, and was the first foreign woman to cook in the kitchens of Maxim's. She has traveled to over 60 countries throughout the world, ``sampling" the local cuisine. She markets her ``Tarla" all-copper rolling pin in fine cookware shops.

 More Onion Links

 For onion trivia, i.e what compound in onions brings tears to your eyes.

Want to grow your own Spanish onions? Order seeds.

A vegetarian stuffed onion recipe.

Learn to handle and store onions properly.

Have you ever heard of Shallots?  It's a kosher restaurant in Chicago

A delicious recipe for crispy onions.

What is a Bermuda onion?



Copyright (C) 1998 WWWiz Corporation - All Rights Reserved
Phone: 714.848.9600 FAX: 714.375.2493
WWWiz Web site developed and maintained by GRAFX Digital Studio

Previous Article Next Article
WWWiz Home