Friday, 8 August 2014

Know Your Onions

In savoury cooking, onions often provide the foundation from which to build depth and complex flavours in a dish.  Along with celery and carrot, onions are one of the three aromatic elements of traditional mirepoix, the starting base of many soups, casseroles, stews and sauces.
Clockwise from bottom left - Shallot, Leek, Brown Onion, Spring Onion/Scallion, Red Onion
Clockwise from bottom left - Shallot, Leek, Brown Onion, Spring Onion/Scallion, Red Onion
Onions are a bulbous root vegetable that belong to the same family as leeks and garlic. When fully mature, their dry, papery skins provide protection to a multi-layered root with juicy flesh.  Their sharp, pungent flavour mellows to sweetness with long, slow cooking.
Choosing the right onion or shallot for both your recipe and also your personal taste preferences can make an enormous difference to the flavour produced in the finished dish. 

Here’s the low-down on some of the different types of onion available:


  • Red Onion (my personal favourite!) – a sweet onion that is suitable for raw use in salads and salsas.  Their attractive purple flesh and mild taste adds colour, texture and flavour to savoury cooking especially ragùs, braises, stews as well as stir fries.
  • Yellow/Brown Onion – widely available and versatile, this onion has yellow flesh and a light tan coloured skin, sautéing prior to slow cooking adds deep caramel flavours to a dish.
  • Spanish Onion – the big cousin to the yellow/brown onion, larger in size but also milder and sweeter, with yellow flesh and a light brown skin.  It is therefore a good choice for use in both raw form (salsas, salads, garnishes) and also for quick-cooking recipes such as stir-fries and omelettes.
  • White Onion – a medium to large round onion, with a strong, pungent flavour. The root’s flesh is evenly white, lending itself to recipes such as Vichyssoise where you want to maintain a white or cream colour in the finished dish.   Due to their size, white onions are good for stuffing, baking (whole or in wedges) and fried onion rings.
  • Spring Onion/Scallions – these young onions are mild in taste and are most frequently used raw in salads, cold pasta dishes and salsas.  Thinly sliced, they can be used garnish soups or omelettes.
  • Shallot Shallots are generally smaller than onions with thin, tightly compacted layers of flesh. They have mild and sweet flavour, and need to be cooked gently on low heat.  Varieties include small round shallots (that look like minature brown onions), round pink shallots and longer, larger banana shallots.  Small round shallots can be peeled and used whole in stews and casseroles, otherwise thinly slice and use in salads or sauté as a flavour base for soups and stews.  As they don't like high heat, it is best not to use them in stir-fries or other high-heat cooking methods.
  • Leeks – whilst not an onion per se, leeks (like garlic) are part of the allium family.  The reason that I have included them here is that leek is great substitute for onion if you want a really mild flavour in a delicately flavoured dish (such as risotto or chowder) or if you are cooking for anyone who has trouble tolerating the stronger flavour of onions.
If you're not quite sure what a recipe means when it asks you to finely mince onions, take a look at my helpful pictorial guide here.

Nutritional Information of Onions

Onions are rich source of B vitamins including heart-healthy folate as well as antioxidents such as Vitamin C.  Scientific studies indicate that onions may help lower high blood pressure, reduce heart attack risk, and the presence of phytochemicals and the flavonoid quercetin may possibly help protect against cancer.  They are natural low in fat, and so are a low cholesterol Superfood

100g of Onion contains:
  • 41 kcals 
  • 0.2g Total fat 
  • 0g Saturated Fat
  •  9.34g carboyhydrate
  • 1.7g Dietary Fibre
  • 1.2g Protein 
  • trace salt.

Cooking with Onions

I regularly feature these healthy, natural ingredients in my Cookbooks.  As a low-calorie ingredient they often appear in the recipes in The 5:2 Diet Recipe Cookbook, such as my recipe for Mediterranean Couscous Salad.
Mediterranean Couscous Salad - The 5:2 Diet Recipe Cookbook
As a low-fat, low-cholesterol Superfood, onions also feature in my Easy Low Fat and Low Cholesterol Mediterranean Diet Recipe Cookbook.

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