Everywhere, the onion -- how tasty is that?

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2012 - 12:01 pm

Some are real tear-jerkers; others just sweethearts, made for golden rings (or atop burgers).

Be they red, yellow, white or green, all onions are not created equal. But without them, our lives would be a lot less flavorful.

"Onions really are ubiquitous," said Kim Reddin, director of public relations for the National Onion Association. "For a lot of people, it's pretty easy to overlook the innocent onion, but it's one of the things you'd really miss – especially if you do a lot of cooking. It's a great vegetable."

Now is fall onion season, when thousands of tons of big, plump bulbs make their way to market.

"It's definitely harvest season," Reddin said. "White onions in particular. California is one of the few states that can grow white onions very well."

Many California onions are grown just for their flavor, then processed and dried.

Processed onions "are specially bred for high solids and are used for dehydration," explained Bob Ehn of the California Garlic and Onion Research Board. "You really wouldn't want to eat one of our high-solid onions, as they are low-water-content and high-pungency. (They) are used in soup mixes, salad dressings, snack foods and literally hundreds of other food products."

According to the National Onion Association, U.S. growers will produce about 6 billion pounds this year. The nation's drought impacted some growers, but the top three onion regions – Idaho-eastern Oregon, Washington and California – will have good crops.

"California is the only state that can actually produce onions year-round," Reddin said. "From south to north, there's such a diversity of varieties that grow well."

Among them are flat Italian red onions, a longtime California favorite that has become very popular through restaurant use.

"We can grow a wide variety of onions here because of our Mediterranean climate," said onion expert Ron Voss, a retired UC Davis professor. "We can actually grow the mild onions commonly grown in the southern parts of the U.S., such as the Vidalia, Maui or other sweet onions. Typically, those are harvested in May.

"We're blessed that we can also plant onions in late winter for summer harvest," he added. "Those include your sweet Spanish types; they're more robust and store better. It also includes the reds – Stockton Red, Cal Red, Red Burger. We get some very good onions July, August and September."

The onions we know best fall into two groups: Fresh market (salad onions and the super-sweets such as the Vidalia type, Walla Walla Sweets and Maui Gold) and storage (Spanish yellow, Texas white and other supermarket favorites).

Onions have two distinct seasons, too. Tending toward the sweet and mild side, spring onions have a higher water content and thinner skin.

Fall onions have lower water content and will store longer – often months. They're easy to recognize, with multiple layers of thick, darker skin.

Fall onions tend to be more pungent – perfect for savory dishes that require longer cooking time to develop full, rich flavor.

Onions fit perfectly with full- flavored fall foods, Reddin said.

"You cannot beat caramelized onions; made with yellow onions, they're the best," she said. "I make a big batch, then use them as a topping for chicken or fish. They have a savory quality that just goes with cooler weather."

Layers of flavorful history

One world, many onions: People have been eating onions, well, forever. It's among our first foods, dating back millennia. The ancient Egyptians even worshipped onions; the bulb's concentric layers symbolized eternal life.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus brought cultivated onions to the New World. But the native Americans already were chomping on raw wild onions, cooking them as a vegetable or using them to season other food.

Onions are America's third favorite vegetable after potatoes and tomatoes. Our annual onion consumption has soared 64 percent in 30 years, from 12.2 pounds per capita in 1982 to more than 20 pounds a year now. Much of that rise in popularity is credited to restaurants' use of onions.

But many countries eat more onions than the United States. The world's No. 1 onion-loving nation? Libya, which annually consumes almost 67 pounds of onions per person.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Debbie Arrington

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