Onions: A Vegetable and an Herb
Onions are most commonly thought of as a vegetable, but they are also an herb! (See Onion as an Herb). Plus, they are good for you.
Do Onions Fight Cancer?
Onions may make you cry, but there is an upside to those tears. The same substances that give onions their pungency are believed to help fight cancer.
A study from the National Cancer Institute found that individuals who ate the most allium vegetables (onions, scallions, garlic, chives and leeks) had a nearly 50 percent lower cancer risk than those who ate the least. Some laboratory studies have shown that the natural substances in these vegetables have anti-tumor effects. Other studies link the vegetables with a lower risk of cancer of the colon, stomach, prostate, esophagus, breast and endometrium (lining of the uterus).
Onions are low in calories yet add abundant flavor to a wide variety of foods.
With only 30 calories per serving (1/2 cup), onions are:
- Sodium free
- Fat free
- Cholesterol free
- Provide fiber, vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, and other nutrients.
Onions, an underground bulb related to the lily, are prized in most cultures for the flavor and piquancy they add to a wide variety of dishes. Because onions are available year round, they can be used in many dishes in all seasons.
Onions come in many sizes, shapes and flavors. Mild-flavored onions include the white or yellow Bermuda onion, yellow Spanish onion, red onion and pearl onion. The stronger-flavored globe onion can have a yellow, red, or white skin. Special varieties include the sweet Vidalia onion from Georgia.
Most onions are sold loose by the pound, although some types are sold in bags or small boxes. Look for onions that feel dry and solid all over, with no soft spots or sprouts. The neck should be tightly closed and the outer skin should have a crackly feel and a shiny appearance. Onions should smell mild, even if their flavor is not. Avoid selecting onions with green areas or dark patches.
Onions should be kept in a cool, dry open space away from bright light. Onions do best in an area that allows for air circulation. Because onions absorb moisture, do not store onions below the sink. Also, do not place onions near potatoes because potatoes give off moisture and produce a gas that causes onions to spoil more quickly. Spring/summer onions usually store for about two weeks and storage onions for about three to four weeks.
Varieties of Onions
Onions came in a variety of sizes, colors and shapes. They are often broken down into three categories: spring/summer, storage, and pearl onions.
Spring/summer onions are grown primarily from fall to spring in warm weather areas and have a soft flesh and a mild or sweet taste. These varieties are generally shipped right after harvesting.
Storage onions have a firm flesh, dry, crackly outer skins and have a pungent flavor. After a brief period of drying, these onions are stored for several months before shipping.
Pearl onions are often called white onions and are densely planted to make the onions smaller. There are no nutritional differences among these onion types.
Onions also come in three colors: yellow, red, and white. Approximately 88 percent of the onion crop is devoted to yellow onion production, with about 7 percent red onions and 5 percent white onions.
Onion Health Benefits
Research shows that onions may help guard against many chronic diseases. That is probably because onions contain generous amounts of a flavonoid called quercetin. Other sources are tea and apples, but research shows that absorption of quercetin from onions is twice that from tea and more than three times that from apples.
Studies have shown that quercetin protects against cataracts, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.
In addition, onions contain a variety of other naturally occurring chemicals known as organosulfur compounds that have been linked to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Onions Aid Detox
Onions thin and cleanse the blood and lower LDL cholesterol without lowering HDL cholesterol. Onions also help detoxify the respiratory tract and help fight asthma, bronchitis, hay fever, and diabetes. Onions help cleanse the body of viruses and the intestines of harmful bacteria.
Today, onions are used in a variety of dishes and rank sixth among the world's leading vegetable crops. Onions not only provide flavor; they also provide health-promoting phytochemicals as well as nutrients.
Onions may be eaten raw or cooked. Onions should be peeled before preparing, except when baking. Onions may be boiled, braised, baked, microwaved, or sauteed.
Before sauteing onions, pour boiling water over them then pat dry; they cook faster this way.
Yellow onions are full-flavored and are a reliable standby for cooking almost anything. Yellow onions turn a rich, dark brown when cooked and give French Onion Soup its tangy sweet flavor. The red onion, with its wonderful color, is a good choice for fresh uses or in grilling and char broiling. White onions are the traditional onion used in classic Mexican cuisine. They have a golden color and sweet flavor when sauteed.
Onion Rings: Make 'em Healthy!
Onion rings are so popular there is a "day" for them! June 22 is "National Onion Rings Day".
Onions are a good source of vitamin C, are fat free, cholesterol free, and sodium free. But when we fry them in oil ... well, let's just say we're pretty much losing the health benefits. Fried onion rings aren't a great "diet" food; however, you can enjoy them by giving up the frying and baking them instead. Try our Baked Onion Rings Recipe.
The origin of fried onions is obscure, but here's a recipe that appeared in the New York Times in 1933, on November 5, 1933, at the height of the Depression.
"Cut large onions into slices about 1/4 inch thick. Separate slices into rings. Dip rings into milk, dredge with flour... Fry onion rings until brown."
Quick pickled onions: Thinly slice red onions. Marinate in white vinegar for ten minutes and enjoy!
Welsh Bunching Onions:
Bunching onion is a perennial with stately clusters of stalks. Use them in the same manner you would use other onions. To grow, harvest from the outside of the bunch; the center will keep producing offshoots.
The Antique Onion
Onions are interesting and date way back in time for more than just a food - the onion has been used medicinally since antiquity for:
- The inside of an onion skin placed on cuts and scratches acted as a wound ointment.
- An onion placed on a wasp or bee sting soon took the pain away.
- A mixture of onions and sugar in water was a cure for whooping cough. Rubbed on the head it was believed a cure for baldness.
Onions were also thought to repel evil spirits, and bunches of onions were often hung outside the door or over the manger in the barn to keep witches and bad fairies away.
Onions were also used to predict the weather:
Onion skin, very thin, Mild winter's coming in.
Onion skin, thick and tough, Coming winter cold and rough.
"I will not move my armies without onions". --General Ulysses S. Grant, in a dispatch to the U.S. War Department
- According to an old English Rhyme, the thickness of an onion skin can help predict the severity of the winter. Thin skins mean a mild winter is coming while thick skins indicate a rough winter ahead.
- If you eat onions you can get rid of onion breath by eating parsley.
- Americans eat 18.8 pounds of fresh and storage type onions on average each year.
"For it is every Cook's Opinion,
No savory Dish without an Onion,
And, lest your Kissing should be spoil'd 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 a Lover, But think it as sweet as her own."
--Jonathan Swift's translation of Martial's "Xenia 18"
"Onion skins very thin, mild winter coming in.
Onion skins very tough, coming winter very rough."
-old English rhyme
"For this is every cook's opinion,
No savoury dish without an onion;
But lest your kissing should be spoiled, Your onions should be thoroughly boiled."
-Jonathon Swift, Irish satirist
Cucumber and Onion Salad Recipe Card
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