Ingredients 101: l’Onion

I begin with the onion, as it is the staple in almost every dish conceived in the two millennia. Also, in my past there exists an incident in that a friend was completely unable to choose a quality onion from the grocery store stock, a feat which is by no means difficult, and thus left me aghast. Sure, there’s nothing really sexy about an onion, but, it’s integral to cuisine, and oft overlooked as but a background player.

We begin our journey by attempting to skip the bits already covered by Wikipedia on the subject. If you enjoy such nerdery (and I do), please feel free to detour and return when you’ve had your fill of phyla, species, and other words utilizing more letters than are in the English alphabet. Then I shall grant onto you the details with regard to selecting said foodstuff.

There are generally two types of onions, bulb onions – the spherical, tear-inducing beast with which most of us are partially familiar with, and green onions, the fresh young tender onion oft sprinkled on your Miso soup (or Kung Pao Chicken). There’s a lot of them. From different places. In different colors. But here’s how I break them down:

Type Characteristics Names Usages
Sweet Onions
Mild in flavor
High in sugar
High water content
Walla Walla
Anywhere an onion is needed
Cooking Onions
Strong in flavor
High sulfur content
More tears
Long cooking methods:
Soups and stews
Caramelized Onions
Green Onions
(not bulb)
Very mild in flavor
Green tops still attached
Narrow bottom
Green Onions
Raw (just clean and eat)
Quick sauté
(bulb, but technically not an onion)
Shallot Anywhere mild onion and garlic flavor is desired

If you couldn’t tell, I’m a personal fan of sweet onions. They provide a background, unidentifiable sweetness to the dish along with the essential onioniness expected. But, green onions are surprisingly good in a crudités platter, or enjoyed quickly grilled with romesco and copious amounts of red wine.

But you’re not here, dear reader, to listen to me wax idiotic about my favorite onion. No, you want to know how to get a good onion.

First and foremost, choose your breed: bulb or green. Let’s start with bulb.


The bulb should be firm. Softball firm. No soft spots/bruises. Softer onions have probably been sitting around for a little longer than you’d like (although, they do keep a surprisingly long time in a cool, dry place). The firm texture above all I have found to be the best indicator of freshness. I prefer to have the paper in-tact on the outside; it’s a pain to remove and deal with, but a nice siding of onion paper shows the onion probably hasn’t been too abused. This goes for shallots as well.

Sweet onion paper may be a little more funky and thinner, so just go by the firmness factor.


Per their name, green onions should be treated much like greens. Look for tops that are vibrant green and crisp. Wilty bits imply that the onion has been around a while (like most things wilty) and green onions do not keep; use within a week. Also, since you’ll want to use the green bits, you’ll want them to look good.

I’ll leave the preparation instructions up to my favorite knife skills video.

Selecting a good onion is incredibly simple; the difficult bit is selecting from the huge amounts of varieties of onions. The best news is that you can treat an onion you don’t know by the way it looks. If it’s bulbous, treat it as a bulb type onion. Does it look like a green onion? Treat it the same – just with larger breeds (leeks), be sure to cut them up then wash; larger onions tend to get a lot of dirt in their leaves.

3 comments to Ingredients 101: l’Onion

  • princesszyrtec

    One of my former favorite “family diner dives” had a chicken walnut salad that I would drive an hour for. Luckily, it was a ten minute drive, but you get the idea.

    Amongst other things, the salad contained mild sweet onions – of the sort one should put in a salad. It was topped with raisins, pineapple, hard-boiled egg….it was more of a dessert, really.

    But I digress.

    New owners had taken over, as new owners are wont to do, and about a month after the takeover, I stopped in and ordered the salad. It was brought to my sticky booth (diner dive, remember) and I could smell the sulfurous onion odor immediately. I took a taste anyways.

    It was a travesty.

    I complained, and told them they used the wrong onion in the salad. I was told that they used the same recipe and same onions as before. I countered with “have you ever smelled or tasted the salad in your ten years of slinging hash here before?”

    That didn’t go over so well.

    I sent it back and ordered chili mac, and wrote out a comment card urging whomever was in charge of purchasing produce to prudently pick the appropriate ingredient. My advice/plea went unheeded, and I have never returned to the diner that ruined Al Smith’s famous chicken walnut salad.

    Onions are important. Dammit.

  • Amon-Rukh

    Wait a minute here, I DID come to this thread to hear you wax idiotic about your favorite onion! Now I feel cheated. In fact, I think I will cry. Oh what a travesty to be weeping over onions yet not actually be over onions!

  • Amon-Rukh

    As an addition I will say that I like green and cooking onions, the former because they bring a flavor that cannot easily be replicated to a large number of dishes (and especially anything in a Mexican, Southwestern or Southeast Asian style) and the latter because they are stronger in flavor than sweet onions. I like me some onion. 😀

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