How to Buy an Onion

How to Buy an Onion

Onions are food for grown-ups: kids hate them but most adults would simply find the world less delicious without them.  Onions are the base of almost every cuisine as the dominant ingredient in a rustic soffritto (onion, garlic and carrot), a delicate mirepoix (onion, celery, carrot), a Creole holy trinity (onion, celery, bell peppers) and an Indian wet trinity (onion, garlic, ginger).  

But for a quotidian vegetable, onions are tricky to buy.  Most grocers stock at least six types, Fairway offers about a dozen, and depending on the season, the Greenmarkets can have even more.  Which you choose depends upon what you’re cooking.

The Big Four


Buy First.  Cry Later.

Most grocers sell onions loose in bins, separated by type.  Choose each to be firm and heavy for its size.  Next, smell it.  Nothing?  You might sniff a peach or melon looking for its perfume, but an onion should have no scent.   Finally, make sure it has an unblemished papery outer skin and a dry neck.  If it’s begun to sprout, put it back.

Cut an onion and a fume of mild sulfuric acid can irritate your eyes.  Some insist you can limit irritation by avoiding the root end where most of the sulfuric acid is, or chilling it for 30 minutes before cutting.   I've given up trying to avoid the tears and instead just cut as fast as I can using my sharpest knife.

Finally, don't store your onions in the refrigerator.  I keep a ceramic bowl on my counter where I hold my onions, garlic and shallots at room temperature and out of the sun.  They last for several weeks this way.

The Extended Onion Family

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