"It's hard to imagine civilization without onions," quipped Julia Child. Well, it's at least hard to imagine many savory dishes without them. After all, how many recipes start with the sautéing of onions?
The most versatile of onions—because it's pleasing to just about everyone—is the sweet onion. It's mild enough to enjoy raw, especially flavorful and sweet when cooked, and it doesn't cause tearing like regular ("storage") onions do (despite the fact that it's very juicy).
What makes an onion a "sweet" onion? Chemically, it has fewer sulfur-containing compounds, which means a higher sugar level than other onions—as well as fewer tears for the cook.
Sweet onions were first introduced to the Pacific Northwest Walla region by a retired French soldier who brought the seeds from Corsica. Farmers in Georgia made sweet onions popular by breeding what is now known as Vidalia onions. The main commercial producers of sweet onions today include the United States and South America.
A good source of dietary fiber, folate, potassium and manganese, sweet onions are also a very good source of vitamins C and B6 and a significant source of antioxidants.
Popular varieties of sweet onions include the Vidalia from Georgia, Walla Walla from Washington, Maui from Hawaii, Sweet Imperial from California, Carzalia from New Mexico, Texas 1015 from Texas, Candy Onions from Wisconsin and OSO Sweets from Chile.
Sweet onions appear seasonally in spring and summer dishes like pasta or potato salads, and sliced on burgers and sandwiches. They'd be perfect in a sandwich wrap along with Jerk Tofu with Pineapple.
Try adding minced sweet onion and your favorite chopped fresh herbs to sour cream for a zesty dip for veggies or chips. Slice sweet onions and cucumbers thinly and marinate in salt, vinegar and herbs to make an old-fashioned refrigerator pickle that will be a hit at your next picnic.
Sautéing sweet onions makes them even sweeter. Try them on meats, tofu, tempeh and in egg dishes. Finely chopped and sautéed sweet onion partners with eggs, corn and cheese for attractive, savory Individual White Corn and Chèvre Puddings. Use them to start any soup or stew, including cold soups like a Chilled Summer Borsch. Sweet onions perfectly top any pizza, too, including this Mushroom Artichoke Flatbread Pizza. When grilling, thread sweet onions onto kebabs with other veggies. Steak and Potato Kebabs are delicious served with a creamy cilantro sauce.
A couple of cooking tips: The high water content of sweet onions means they take a little longer to cook than other onions. And always use low or medium heat when cooking onions, because high heat can make them bitter.
Sweet onions are most readily available from about mid-June through early September (thanks to controlled storage conditions, though, you may be able to score some year round).
Choose sweet onions that are heavy for their size, with thin, shiny, light golden brown skins. (Sweet onions are lighter in color than storage onions.) Avoid onions with soft spots or bruises and those that are sprouting.
Because they're higher in sugar and water, sweet onions bruise easily, so take care when transporting and storing them. Some experts recommend wrapping sweet onions in paper towels or newspaper then placing in the refrigerator to keep them cool and dry, but others say to treat them like regular storage onions and keep them out of the refrigerator—in a cool dry place. In either case, don't store them in plastic bags, and don't store them near potatoes, because the potatoes will absorb water from the onions.
Once you slice into a sweet onion, wrap any leftover in plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator.