06/11/2012 04:07 EDT | Updated 08/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Sweet or pungent, onions can be used cooked or raw in almost any kind of cuisine

LONDON, Ont. - "It's hard to imagine civilization without onions," renowned chef Julia Child once said.

This versatile vegetable is a staple in almost every kitchen and, except maybe for desserts, its uses know few bounds.

All of its many varieties can be cooked or eaten raw. They can be served as a main dish, side dish, condiment, garnish, ingredient in salads, stews, casseroles and egg dishes, in drinks, on sandwiches, in relishes and even as fast food in the form of onion rings or blooming onions (a whole onion cut to resemble a flower, then battered and deep-fried). They are an important part of almost every type of cuisine.

Many Canadians are already enjoying the first onions of the season — green onions and wild leeks — but will have to wait at least a couple of months for the larger home-grown onions. Chives, another early spring product here, are technically related to onions but are usually considered an herb.

There are three broad categories of onions — yellow, red and white — says Kim Reddin, director of public relations for the U.S. National Onion Association, based in Greeley, Colo. But within those three categories are big onions (Spanish), small ones (shallots and pearl onions), hot and sweet ones.

Onions labelled "sweet" are the mildest, especially the coveted Vidalia, an onion grown only in a defined area of Georgia that some people are known to eat like apples. They have lower sulphur content so the sugar shines through but do not keep as long.

Spanish onions and red onions are stronger than sweet onions and are still popular served raw. But their heat can vary depending on the time of year they're harvested, according to the onion association. White onions are characterized as "tangy" and their colour makes them a good choice for soups and sauces. They are also the onions used most commonly in Latin American cooking.

The most pungent, but also the most flavourful, are yellow cooking onions, which, as the name implies, are "definitely better for cooking," says Barb Holland, a home economist with Foodland Ontario.

"They mellow out when you're cooking them."

Onions should not be cooked at high heat because it makes them bitter, advises the onion association. When sautéing you should always use low or medium heat. Also, cut onions get much stronger the longer they sit, so it's best to cut them just before you need them.

One mistake some people make is storing onions in the refrigerator, Holland says. Whole unpeeled onions keep much better in a cool dry place, preferably in a mesh bag to allow aeration. In the refrigerator, they will go soft much quicker.

But cut onions, green onions (or scallions, as they are also known) and leeks should be refrigerated.

Holland is a big fan of shallots, the small onions that look like garlic bulbs, and uses them to make salad dressing.

"I usually slice the shallot before putting it in the oil and then soften it by heating the oil in the microwave for 30 seconds or a minute to let the flavour infuse. Then I make the dressing from that." She does the same thing with garlic, a relative of the onion, but removes the garlic before making the dressing.

She also likes pickled red onions. "I slice them very thinly. Then I heat vinegar and sugar and a bit of salt and pour that over the onions. It turns the most amazing pink colour. I keep them in the solution in the fridge and put them on salads or burgers." She says red onion is also particularly good with smoked trout or salmon.

Last year about 201,000 metric tonnes of onions were grown commercially in Canada, almost half of that in Ontario and about one-third in Quebec, according to Agriculture Canada.

"There is a lot of trade in onion products between the United States and Canada," Reddin says. Part of that is because in southern onion-producing states, crops mature in spring and early summer, whereas in Canada, harvest runs from late summer to late December.

There is also a geographic component. "Our production is predominantly heavy in the west — Idaho, Washington, Oregon — and the production volume in Canada is more central to the east. So sometimes there's almost a circle, with onions going up (from the U.S. to Canada) on the western side of the country and down (from Canada to the U.S.) in the east during fall and winter."

Quite a few Canadian growers, especially from the Montreal and Bradford, Ont., areas, are members of the U.S. association because there is no comparable organization here, Reddin says.


To contact Susan Greer, email her at susan.greer(at)