News, articles and recipes containing Onion
The history and uses of the Onion
The onion (Allium cepa), also known as the bulb onion, common onion and garden onion, is the most widely cultivated species of the genus Allium. The genus Allium also contains a number of other species variously referred to as onions and cultivated for food, such as the Japanese bunching onion (A. fistulosum), Egyptian onion (A. ×proliferum), and Canada onion (A. canadense). The name “wild onion” is applied to a number of Allium species.
The vast majority of cultivars of A. cepa belong to the ‘common onion group’ (A. cepa var. cepa) and are usually referred to simply as ‘onions’. The ‘Aggregatum group’ of cultivars (A. cepa var. aggregatum) includes both shallots and potato onions.
Allium cepa is known only in cultivation, but related wild species occur in Central Asia. The most closely related species include Allium vavilovii (Popov & Vved.) and Allium asarense (R.M. Fritsch & Matin) from Iran. However, Zohary and Hopf warn that “there are doubts whether the A. vavilovii collections tested represent genuine wild material or only feral derivatives of the crop.”
Onions pickled in vinegar are eaten as a snack. These are often served as a side serving in fish and chip shops throughout the United Kingdom and Australia, often served with cheese in the United Kingdom, and are referred to simply as “pickled onions” in Eastern Europe.
Yellow onions turn a rich, dark brown when cooked and give French onion soup its tangy sweet flavor. The red onion is a good choice for fresh uses or in grilling and char-broiling. White onions are the traditional onion used in classic Mexican cuisine. They have a golden color and sweet flavor when sautéed.
While the large mature onion bulb is the onion most often eaten, onions can be eaten at immature stages. Young plants may be harvested before bulbing occurs and used whole as scallions. When an onion is harvested after bulbing has begun but the onion is not yet mature, the plants are sometimes referred to as summer onions.
Additionally, onions may be bred and grown to mature at smaller sizes. Depending on the mature size and the purpose for which the onion is used, these may be referred to as pearl, boiler, or pickler onions. (However, true pearl onions are a different species.) Pearl and boiler onions may be cooked as a vegetable rather than an ingredient. Pickler onions are, unsurprisingly, often pickled.
Onion seed may be “sprouted”, and the resulting sprouts used in salads, sandwiches, and other dishes. (See sprouting.)
Onions are available in fresh, frozen, canned, caramelized, pickled, powdered, chopped, and dehydrated forms.
Onion powder is a spice used for seasoning in cooking. It is made from finely ground, dehydrated onions, mainly the pungent varieties of bulb onions, which causes the powder to have a very strong odor. Onion powder comes in a few varieties: white, yellow, red and toasted.
Onions have particularly large cells that are readily observed at low magnification; consequently, onion tissue is frequently used in science education for demonstrating microscope usage.
Onion skins have been used for dye.
Bulbs from the onion family are thought to have been used as a food source for millennia. In Bronze Age settlements, traces of onion remains were found alongside fig and date stones dating back to 5000 BC.
However, it is not clear if these were cultivated onions. Archaeological and literary evidence such as the Book of Numbers 11:5 suggests cultivation probably took place around two thousand years later in ancient Egypt, at the same time that leeks andgarlic were cultivated. Workers who built the Egyptian pyramids may have been fed radishes and onions.
The onion is easily propagated, transported and stored. The ancient Egyptians worshipped it, believing its spherical shape and concentric rings symbolized eternal life. Onions were even used in Egyptian burials, as evidenced by onion traces being found in the eye sockets of Ramesses IV.
In ancient Greece, athletes ate large quantities of onion because it was believed to lighten the balance of blood. Roman gladiators were rubbed down with onion to firm up their muscles. In the Middle Ages, onions were such an important food that people would pay their rent with onions, and even give them as gifts. Doctors were known to prescribe onions to facilitate bowel movements and erections, and also to relieve headaches, coughs, snakebite and hair loss.
The cultivated onion was introduced to North America by Christopher Columbus on his 1492 expedition to Hispaniola; however, they found that strains of wild onions already grew throughout North America. Native American Indians used wild onions in a variety of ways, eating them raw or cooked, as a seasoning or as a vegetable. Such onions were also used in syrups, as poultices, as an ingredient in dyes and even as toys. According to diaries of colonists, bulb onions were planted as soon as the Pilgrim fathers could clear the land in 1648.
Onions were also prescribed by doctors in the early 16th century to help with infertility in women, and even dogs, cats and cattle and many other household pets. However, recent evidence has shown that dogs, cats, and other animals should not be given onions in any form, due to toxicity during digestion.
Wide-ranging claims have been made for the effectiveness of onions against conditions ranging from the common cold to heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and other diseases. They contain chemical compounds believed to have anti-inflammatory, anticholesterol, anticancer, and antioxidant properties, such as quercetin. Preliminary studies have shown increased consumption of onions reduces the risk of head and neck cancers.
Among all varieties, Asian white onions have the most eye irritating chemical reaction. Regular use of white onion, if eaten raw, is claimed to be good due to its antioxidant and anti-inflammatoryproperties.
In India some sects do not eat onions as they believe them to be an aphrodisiac; various schools of Buddhism also advise against eating onions and other vegetables of the Allium family.
In many parts of the undeveloped world, onions are used to heal blisters and boils. A traditional Maltese remedy for sea urchin wounds is to tie half a baked onion to the afflicted area overnight. A similar traditional cure is known in Bulgaria. Half-baked onion with sugar is placed over the finger and fingernail in case of inflammation.
An application of raw onion is also said to be helpful in reducing swelling from bee stings. In the United States, products that contain onion extract are used in the treatment of topical scars; some studies have found their action to be ineffective, while others found that they may act as an anti-inflammatory or bacteriostatic and can improve collagen organization in rabbits.
Onions may be beneficial for women, who are at increased risk for osteoporosis as they go through menopause, by destroying osteoclasts so they do not break down bone.
An American chemist has stated the pleiomeric chemicals in onions have the potential to alleviate or prevent sore throat. Onion in combination with jaggery has been widely used as a traditional household remedy for sore throat in India.
Shallots have the most phenols, six times the amount found in Vidalia onion, the variety with the lowest phenolic content. Shallots also have the most antioxidant activity, followed by Western Yellow, pungent yellow (New York Bold), Northern Red, Mexico, Empire Sweet, Western White, Peruvian Sweet, Texas 1015, Imperial Valley Sweet, and Vidalia. Western Yellow onions have the most flavonoids, eleven times the amount found in Western White, the variety with the lowest flavonoid content.
For all varieties of onions, the more phenols and flavonoids they contain, the more reputed antioxidant and anticancer activity they provide. When tested against liver and colon cancer cells in laboratory studies, ‘Western Yellow’, pungent yellow (New York Bold) and shallots were most effective in inhibiting their growth. The milder-tasting cultivars (i.e., ‘Western White,’ ‘Peruvian Sweet,’ ‘Empire Sweet,’ ‘Mexico,’ ‘Texas 1015,’ ‘Imperial Valley Sweet’ and ‘Vidalia’) showed little cancer-fighting ability.
Shallots and ten other onion (Allium cepa L.) varieties commonly available in the United States were evaluated: Western Yellow, Northern Red, pungent yellow (New York Bold), Western White, Peruvian Sweet, Empire Sweet, Mexico, Texas 1015, Imperial Valley Sweet, and Vidalia. In general, the most pungent onions delivered many times the effects of their milder cousins.
The 3-mercapto-2-methylpentan-1-ol in onion was found to inhibit peroxynitrite-induced mechanisms in vitro.
While members of the onion family appear to have medicinal properties for humans, they can be deadly for dogs and cats.
As onions are sliced or eaten, cells are broken, allowing enzymes called alliinases to break down amino acid sulphoxides and generate sulphenic acids. A specific sulfenic acid, 1-propenesulfenic acid, formed when onions are cut, is rapidly rearranged by a second enzyme, called the lachrymatory factor synthase or LFS, giving syn-propanethial-S-oxide, a volatile gas known as the onion lachrymatory factor or LF.The LF gas diffuses through the air and eventually reaches the eye, where it activates sensory neurons, creating a stinging sensation. Tear glands produce tears to dilute and flush out the irritant. Chemicals that exhibit such an effect on the eyes are known as lachrymatory agents.
Supplying ample water to the reaction while peeling onions prevents the gas from reaching the eyes. Eye irritation can, therefore, be avoided by cutting onions under running water or submerged in a basin of water. Another way to reduce irritation is by chilling, or by not cutting off the root of the onion (or by doing it last), as the root of the onion has a higher concentration of enzymes. Using a sharp blade to chop onions will limit the cell damage and the release of enzymes that drive the irritation response. Chilling or freezing onions prevents the enzymes from activating, limiting the amount of gas generated.
Eye irritation can also be avoided by having a fan blow the gas away from the eyes, or by wearing goggles or any eye protection that creates a seal around the eye. Contact lens wearers may also experience less immediate irritation as a result of the slight protection afforded by the lenses themselves.
The amount of sulfenic acids and LF released and the irritation effect differs among Allium species. On January 31, 2008, the New Zealand Crop and Food institute created a strain of “no tears” onions by usinggene-silencing biotechnology to prevent synthesis by the onions of the lachrymatory factor synthase enzyme.
This site is hosted by (click on the graphic for more information)
Return from onion to Home Page