It’s the start of so many memorable dishes: First, peel and chop an onion. As essential as onions are to the foundation of so many terrific dishes, it’s likely that you’ve taken them for granted. “Onions are the most common vegetable on today’s menus, but they’re often overlooked,” says Mary Humann, spokesperson for the National Onion Association. She offered some insight into the differences among onion varieties, as well as some good ideas for taking advantage of the spring onions that are just coming in season.
What’s in a name?
If you’ve always wondered about the difference between green onions and scallions, here’s a revelation: they’re actually the same thing. Both names refer to onions that never form bulbs, or are early-harvested from traditional varieties. One to watch for is the Mexican green onion, sometimes called the BBQ onion. It’s a green onion that’s been allowed to grow a little longer and develop a large, white bulb. With its sturdy shape and mild flavor, it’s great for tossing directly on the grill.
Spring onions are a variety unto themselves, with small onion bulbs at the base. They’re called “spring” because they were planted last fall and are usually harvested and available in May and June. Their taste is sweeter and mellower than regular onions, but you might find that the green tops have a bit more bite than you’ll find in scallions.
Here are more spring onion tips from Humann: “The spring fresh onions are different from the storage onions available during most of the year. They have a higher water content, and we have found that many chefs do not understand that fry times, etc. need to be adjusted for this.” If you opt for prep methods such as grilling or roasting, you’ll have a chance to bring out these onions’ sweet side. Toss them in olive oil and salt before cooking, and then finish them with a squirt of fresh lemon juice when they come off the heat.
“As far as trends, we’re seeing more and more caramelized onions and pickled onions featured on menus,” Humann says. And while it’s a universal truth in the kitchen that the best time to make a pot of caramelized onions is about four hours ago, don’t forget that this is a perfect make-and-freeze ingredient. Start a pot of the onions caramelizing during morning prep, and set aside any that are left over after evening service. Freeze them flat on half sheets, then bag them up and keep on hand. They stay relatively soft while frozen, so it’s easy to nip off a few of them to add to a soup base, pasta sauce or pizza topping.
If you have an in-house pickling and fermentation program, any type of onion can be a standalone dish or an add-in to something like sauerkraut or kimchi. Pickled red onions make a colorful and popular garnish, especially for richer, fattier entrees like burgers or steaks.