When you picture a purifying post-holiday meal, you probably imagine clear, nourishing broth studded with vibrant greens. Perhaps visions of juiced vegetables dance in your head, endive and citrus salads, cholesterol-taming oatmeal breakfasts. But you probably don’t have a single fantasy about storage onions, that commoner we must resort to in the heart of winter when the juicy sweet onions of summer have withered away. Because the onion has been synonymous with the kitchen for so long—bound together by that time of day when you wander to the counter and begin slicing an onion before you fully know what you want to cook—it has become all but invisible.
Storage onions are so familiar, so basic, they seem squeezed of every last drop of intrigue. Yet they maintain the astonishing power to make (most of) us weep. For me, slicing an onion is nearly torture. About halfway through, my eyes sting so intensely I can’t see anymore. Once, while prepping an onion-heavy dish, a UPS guy showed up at my door—no time to wipe away the evidence, I answered with tears streaming down my face. He paused, I didn’t see the point in explaining, so we made our brief exchange with me looking like I’d just returned from euthanizing a beloved pet.
Still, I’d never given onions a serious thought until I tried growing them. I assumed that something so cheap, so unexceptional must be a piece of cake. But, no; from start to finish, onion cultivation requires finesse, experience, well-crafted patience.
For starters, their seeds are slow and, if you choose to go this route over buying onion sets at a nursery, they must be planted now—months (of watching and watering and coddling) before you will transfer them to the garden. Transplanting is pleasant enough if you are the sort that enjoys removing a hair from a wet finger, as fingers often are in an Oregon spring. And then, right when you think they’re safely tucked into the soil, a playful crow or scrub jay comes along some dewy morning and pulls them all back out, just for fun.
If you persevere—replanting, providing even moisture, keeping the soil cool with mulch, fighting back the weeds that will bully your babies into weaker versions of themselves—and those onion threads grow, finally, into succulent greens, you’re a third of the way there. From this point on, timing is everything: when to bend the tops over to prevent the growth of a flowering stalk that would deplete bulb quality, when to cut off watering to thwart fungal rot, when to dig the bulbs for optimum flavor and storability, how long to cure them, and, at long last, where to store them until you’re ready to let them toy with your emotions one last time on the cutting board.
Onion struggle, however relentless, is worth it. Whether your toil is seed-to-kitchen or simply the sort an unsuspecting UPS guy stumbles upon now and then, the humble onion pays back threefold. All onions contain a range of vitamins and phytonutrients (chemical compounds believed to be responsible for the low disease rates associated with plant-based diets), with the highest levels occurring in pungent storage onions. Sweet onions (think Walla Walla or Vidalia) contain about an eighth of the phytonutrients present in a storage onion. Quercetin, the onion’s most prevalent phytonutrient, is the object of studies investigating its promising ability to prohibit certain cancer cell growth and prevent some of the factors that contribute to heart disease.
Best of all, we know that these beneficial compounds, mysterious as they may otherwise be, aren’t damaged by exposure to heat. Roast away! Sauté your heart out! Put them in almost everything! Cooking tames their offending heat and brings out the sweetness that was waiting underneath. Since the phytonutrient content is denser toward the outer rings, peel conservatively and consider saving the skins (curiously, the most nutritional part) to steep in your next batch of soup stock.
Onions are rarely the star of the show, but this is perhaps their greatest attribute. The more onions you eat, the more benefit you get—in the form of vitamins and phytonutrients, of course, but also in the practice of preparing simple and satisfying meals. They are the first thing in the pot, the foundational ingredient that blends and balances and buoys. They are the kitchen’s best dancing partner, its most fervent soccer mom. And since starting with onions usually means building with other whole ingredients, they dare you—air filled with their enigmatic fragrance—to add more, to cook.
Nothing transforms a pungent storage onion so completely as this simple recipe. Though there are many ways to char an onion, this low heat, hour-plus simmer will coax out and deepen all of the onions’ sugars, resulting in a surprisingly sultry ingredient that makes everything taste better: pasta, pizza, soups, sandwiches, omelets, bean dishes, polenta, you name it.
Makes 1 1/3 cups
2 pounds storage onions (5 or 6 medium), sliced evenly to 1/4-inch thickness
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1. Heat the oil in a skillet with deep sides or a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions, turning to coat them with the oil. Cook, stirring every few minutes, until they have released their juices and begin to really sizzle against the bottom of the pan, about 20 minutes.
2. Turn the heat down to low or medium low, depending on your stove, and continue to gently cook the onions, stirring every ten minutes or so, while they begin to turn golden brown, then walnut brown, then deep chocolate brown. The cooking will take between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on how deeply caramelized you would like them to be. When the onions are done, splash the pan with a tablespoon of water (for more flavor, use stock or wine); stir until the liquid is reduced and season with salt and pepper.
3. Caramelized onions will keep a week or two in the fridge, or can be frozen for up to three months.
Recipe adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy.