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Onions are a Chef’s staple ingredient

A close up of a big box of onions

The Versatile Role of Onions in Mirepoix:

Have you ever come across the term ‘Mirepoix’ while watching cooking shows like MasterChef? Often referred to as the “holy trinity” in some countries, Mirepoix is a simple yet versatile flavour base that can be found in numerous dishes. Onions, in particular, play a crucial role in this classic culinary combination.

The Classic Mirepoix Components:

Mirepoix typically consists of onions, celery, and carrots. However, the celery and carrot can sometimes be substituted with other vegetables like fennel or capsicum, but the onion remains an essential ingredient. The reason for this lies in the rich and varied flavours that onions bring to the table.

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The Transformative Flavors of Onions:

Onions can offer a range of flavours, depending on how they are prepared.

  • Raw onions: Strong and astringent
  • Lightly sautéed onions: More rounded in flavour
  • Caramelized onions: Sweeter and richer

In Mirepoix, the usual ratio is 2 parts onion, 1 part celery, and 1 part carrot. This combination creates a harmonious balance that is the foundation for many delicious dishes.

Exploring Onion Varieties in Australia:

Australia’s diverse range of cultures has led to a vibrant and ever-expanding selection of fruits and vegetables in our greengrocers. Over the past five years, teaching in my cooking school has exposed me to numerous questions and inquiries about the various types of onions and their unique flavours.

Onions you can find at the Supermarket are:

Each variety has its distinct flavour profile and culinary uses. Some of the common onion varieties you can find in Australia include:

  1. Brown Onions: The most common variety, brown onions, has a strong, pungent flavour, making them ideal for various cooked dishes, including soups, stews, and sauces.
  2. White Onions: Milder in flavour than brown onions, white onions are versatile and can be used both raw and cooked. They’re perfect for salsas, salads, and Mexican dishes.
  3. Red Onions: Known for their vibrant colour and slightly sweet taste, red onions are popular in salads, sandwiches, and burgers. They can also be grilled or caramelized for a deliciously sweet and smoky flavour.
  4. Spring Onions (Scallions): With a delicate flavour and tender texture, spring onions are often used as a garnish or added to salads, stir-fries, and Asian dishes.
  5. Shallots: A small, sweet, and mild onion variety, shallots are perfect for salad dressings, sauces, and delicate dishes where a more subtle onion flavour is desired.
  6. Leeks: Although not technically an onion, leeks are closely related and have a similar mild and sweet taste. They’re often used in soups, stews, and quiches. When leeks are cooked longer, they become creamy, which is great for pie fillings and dishes needing a creamy sauce.

With such a wide range of onion varieties available in Australia, there’s always an opportunity to explore new flavours and culinary techniques. Embrace diversity and enhance your dishes with the perfect onion for every occasion.

Here’s a bit more about each variety and when to use them

Brown Onions.

Close up of brown onions.  One is sliced in half showing the inside.
Brown onions

The most commonly used onion has dry golden skin, With greenish-white flesh and is 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 have a more complex flavour due to their drying of them.

Red Onions.

Close up of red onions.  One is sliced in half showing the inside.
Red onions

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, giving your dish a sweeter flavour if cooking.  One great use is that they’re 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 the recipe without adding as much sugar.

White Onions

Two white onions.
White onions

White onions are not used as much in Australia but they shouldn’t be overlooked.  They have a greenish-white flesh and a strong sharp 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

Pickling onions are small, firm onions that are ideal for preserving in vinegar or brine. They are often used to make tangy, crunchy accompaniments for various dishes or served as a condiment on their own. 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 aisle in jars.

Fresh onions, on the other hand, are the milder versions of dried onion.  They’re sold singularly or in bunches, usually with the tops intact.  They can be lightly cooked, pan-fried or used in salads.  They are seasonal, of course, 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

A dozen or so spring onions.
Spring onions

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

Shallots have either golden coppery skin or 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.

What is Onion Powder?

Onion powder is a convenient seasoning made from dehydrated, freeze-dried, or flow-dried onions. Some commercial onion powders undergo irradiation to eliminate microbial contamination. However, there are two main reasons why I avoid using onion powder:

  1. Clumping: Onion powder with a moisture content of 4-5% can clump or harden inside the jar or container, making it difficult to use.
  2. Anti-caking agents: Some onion powders contain added anti-caking agents to prevent clumping.

It’s worth noting that onion powder is approximately 10 times stronger in flavour than fresh onion. Keep this in mind when substituting it in recipes.

As an alternative, I prefer using dried onion flakes. I grind it just before use or incorporate it into a spice blend. The other spices in the blend help prevent the mixture from solidifying in the jar, ensuring a more enjoyable and hassle-free cooking experience.

Onion salt

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.

A fry pan of red onions being caramelized.
Sweet red onions with Asian spices

Are onions good for you?

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, 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 antioxidants and anti-inflammatory elements.  And that’s all I’m saying because I’m not a Doctor.

Some brilliant recipes to make that have onion in them

How to store onions?

  • Store whole raw onions in a cool, dark place between 7 and 13 degrees C (45 and 55 degrees F). This can help them last for two to three months.
  • Once an onion is cut, storing it in the refrigerator is best. Place it in an airtight container, preferably glass, since plastic can absorb odours.
  • Sliced, cut, or diced onions can be kept in the fridge for up to 10 days when wrapped tightly in plastic wrap or stored in a container.
  • It’s important to regularly check stored onions and remove any that appear to be spoiling, as one spoiling onion can cause the rest to spoil faster.

6 Comments

  1. Have you heard of Vidalia Onions? We have them here in the South of the United States. They are a sweeter onion and are very good. Summertime is when we usually see them in the grocery store or at farmers markets.

    1. Hi Pat, yes, I’ve seen and used them but didn’t know their name. Our supermarkets really don’t give us a lot of choice in Australia but if you have a quality green grocers near by you can often find this sort of thing when they’re in season. You’ll see this sort of onion April to August in Australia.

  2. Hi Bec, I recently went to a restaurant where they served a caramelised onion butter with warm focaccia. It was very light almost like a dip and the most divine dish I have enjoyed in a long time. Would you know of any recipe ? I have googled but can’t find anything similar.
    Thank you for all your great advice and tips.

  3. When I was growing up my Mum always used white onions. They were then what brown onions are today. She also in season, used salad onions to make lovely white sauce to have with corned beef. They came with the tops in tact.

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