Have you heard of Mirepoix? I’m sure if you watch shows like MasterChef and the like you’ve heard the word. In some countries, they call it the “holy trinity”. It’s usually a combination of onions, celery and carrot although the celery and carrot may be replaced by another veg like fennel or capsicum the onion is always present in some form. These are a flavour base for many dishes and the ratio is usually 2 parts onion, 1 part celery, and 1 part carrot.
We’re so lucky to have such a diverse range of cultures in Australia. Our greengrocers have opened their shelves adding new exciting varieties of all sorts of fruit and veg. Over the last 5 years of teaching in my cooking school, I’ve been asked all kinds of questions about fruit and veg varieties. So let’s start with onions. Most savoury recipes call for them in some way. I’d like to share my opinions on where and when to use them.
So as long as you can tolerate onions, they’re very good for you. Although there are a lot of people that are fructose intolerant and they do rank high on the fructose scale. So if you don’t have any fructose problems, Yes, you could call them a superfood. 😉 They are full of anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory elements. And that’s all I’m saying because I’m not a Doctor.
The most commonly used onion, have a dry golden skin, With greenish-white flesh and are pungent. They have a balanced sweet/astringent taste. These onions are the most widely used of all onions in Australia because they’re pretty much an all-rounder and have the longest shelf life. They are high in sulphur and a more complex flavour due to the drying of them.
Red onions would be our second most used onion. They’re sometimes called Spanish onions, but I have no idea why. They’re milder and sweeter than brown onions and will give your dish a sweeter flavour if cooking. But there probably mostly sliced very finely and used in salads. They’re perfect for consuming raw, lightly fried or added as a sweet, colourful addition to salads. There also excellent for quick pickling. I sometimes use them in sauces and chutneys to add that extra sweetness that will balance out the recipe without having to add as much sugar.
White onions are not used as much in Australia, but they shouldn’t be overlooked. They have a greenish-white flesh and a strong shaper taste. They’re often mistaken for a salad onion, but the dried version is best used for cooking in my opinion. My choice is to use them in chutneys and cooked spiced dishes.
Pickling or Pearl Onions or cocktail onions
There aren’t too many of these around, although you might find them in our larger fruit and vegetable stores when in season. They are mostly used for pickling, or as cocktail onions, you can find them in any supermarket in the Anti Pasto isle in jars.
Fresh onions, on the other hand, are the milder versions of the dried onion. They’re sold singularly or in bunches and usually come with the tops intact. They can be lightly cooked, pan-fried or used in salads. They are seasonal of course being fresh, and they are called a whole lot of different names. Not many of us know how to use them, and you don’t see them all the time.
Spring onions or sometimes called shallots, which they’re not, are often used in salads or stir-fries. The larger they are, the stronger the flavour, they can be cooked or raw. People that are fructose intolerant can often consume the green but not the white.
Shallots have either a golden coppery skin or a darker coppery red skin. The more you brown them, the stronger and more bitter the flavour becomes. If you keep the cooking to a minimum, you’ll release a slightly sweet spicey taste. If you can get banana shallots, they’re easier to peel.
There are a few different ways this is done. They can be dehydrated, freeze-dried or something called flow drying. Some commercial onion powders are irradiated to treat against microbial contamination. I don’t use Onion powder because of two reasons. Any Onion Powder with a moisture content of 4 – 5 % will set in your jar or container making it impossible to retrieve. If you’ve never found that to be the case, then your Onion Powder will most likely have an anti-caking agent added to it. Just for your interest, though, onion powder is around 10 times stronger than fresh onion so be aware of that if you’re using it.
I tend to use dried onion if I’m going to use it at all. I only grind it before using it or adding it to a spice blend. The other spices in the spice mix are pretty good at keeping everything from setting like cement in the jar.
Onion salt may be used as a seasoning in place of straight salt. If you use onion salt, the commercial varieties have a ratio of around 1 part salt to five parts dehydrated onion. They usually contain an anti-caking agent.