Clockwise from top: Yellow onion, leek, green onions, shallots

A kitchen staple, onions belong to a large family, that includes yellow, white and red onions, scallions (green onions), pearl onions, shallots and leeks. Each type has a slightly different flavour when it comes to sweetness, but they all have one thing in common....cutting onions makes your eyes water!

Everyone has a sure fire way to stop your eyes watering, but I've not had much success with any of them. Things like burning a candle, having a fan to blow away the gas, chewing gum....even wearing goggles. I find that cutting onions last, then removing and washing the cutting board and my hands at least minimizes the exposure to the gas.

The yellow onion is probably the most used and known. When a recipe refers to 'onion' this is usually what it is calling for, and what comes first to mind. The safest way to cut an onion is to remove the papery outer skin with your fingers, then holding the onion firmly and forming a bridge for the knife, cut it in half through the root base. You can then lie the two halves flat on the cutting board, cut off the stem end, remove the outside layers and cut your onion.

I've included a link to a Jamie Oliver demo on how to cut an onion. He is using a red onion, but the process is the same for yellow and white onions. Practice and a really sharp knife will help get you to his speed and efficiency!

To cut scallions, trim off any dry ends from the green part, remove the root core and then cut across, width dependent on your recipe. Scallions are often thinly sliced, but longer sections (or sections cut on the diagonal) can also be called for.

To cut a leek, the process is basically the same as a scallion, but leeks tend to hide dirt in between the layers. The leek can be sliced as is (circles), or cut lengthwise into halves or quarters before slicing across. This will give you a diced leek. I then like to place the cut leek into a strainer and run under cold water, separating the pieces with my fingers to clean out any dirt. Drain well before cooking.

Pearl onions are not usually cut, they are used whole in stews or casseroles. To peel them easily, bring a pot of salted water to a boil.  Blanch the onions for about 30 seconds, then strain and put into a bowl of ice water. The skins will slip off with a gentle squeeze at the stem end. You can also find peeled pearl onions in the freezer section of some grocery stores.

Shallots follow the same procedure as yellow onions.

Green onions and leeks should be stored in the refrigerator, the others in a cool, dry, dark place.

Onions have many uses, often being the base of a sauce, soup or stew. Red onions and scallions have a slightly milder taste, and work well raw in salads or salsas. Below is a list of some of the many ways I like to use onions when cooking:

  • thinly sliced and caramelized by cooking over a med-low heat with olive oil, they brighten up a homemade pizza, complimented with blue cheese.
  • thickly sliced rounds, lightly drizzled with olive oil and grilled.
  • caramelized onions are great on a burger, or mixed into a homemade bread dough with chopped fresh rosemary.
  • shallots roasted whole, with salt and pepper, olive oil and fresh thyme, drizzled with honey for the last 10 minutes of cooking.
  • yellow, white or red onions can be stuffed and baked if you scoop out the centre layers after removing the top.
  • minced red or green onion brighten up salsa. Try adding fresh mango, diced sweet red pepper and cilantro for a tasty accompaniment for grilled fish.
  • pearl onions can be added to stews, but can also be roasted with olive oil and maple syrup.
  • try using diced leeks instead of onion for a pasta sauce.
  • finely slice leeks and combine with grated zucchini and potato, an egg and flour to bind, and cook in a heated non-stick pan to make a pancake.
  • green onions cut in the diagonal into 1" sections added to stirfry.
  • minced shallots added to a salad dressing
  • minced green onions with diced apple in tuna salad
  • roasted shallots in cannelloni, with ricotta cheese, spinach, goat cheese and fresh basil.
 These are just a few ideas, the options are endless. So reach for part of the onion family and start experimenting!

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