A few years ago, my neighbour and I decided to pool our resources in order to save money. We both wanted to shop "smarter" and more sustainably. Since between us we were regularly feeding six or seven people, it seemed like a good idea to buy certain foodstuffs in bulk, such as rice, flour and potatoes. By and large this has been a success. We have saved on all sorts of things, from the journeys needed to buy the food to the packaging itself, as by buying in bulk there was less to throw away. And it turned out that our local greengrocer was happy to deliver bags of produce when he was making his commercial deliveries; we only had to ask. So I wasn't entirely surprised to come home to a large bag of onions sitting in my porch. What did surprise me was the size. My neighbour had ordered a 25kg bag of onions. 25kg! That is by any standard quite a large bag.
I can't really imagine a life without onions, a workhorse of cooking. There are few savoury dishes, particularly in colder months, where I don't use onions, the building blocks of many a meal. But even I didn't think I'd be able to get through half that sack without some of them going off, no matter how well I stored them.
It's the sulphurous compounds in strong and pungent onions that can make you cry when you chop them. But it's these chemicals that also help to preserve the onion while being stored. If you grow your own, then you'll probably know some of the best ways of preserving and storing your onions, which need to be dried or "cured" for a few weeks before storing, away from sunlight and humidity; the skin should be tight and papery.
The onions that were delivered by the greengrocer, and the ones I buy in smaller quantities from local markets or supermarkets, have all been treated in this way. They are dry and have been trimmed of their roots and leaves. Onions should be stored in a cool, dark place. I am lucky enough to have a cellar and normally I would have stored my onions there. Unfortunately, last year we were flooded and I knew that I was going to have to store the onions in the kitchen. Since my kitchen sees a lot of cooking action, I knew the onions would deteriorate in the humidity as they readily absorb moisture; beginning to sprout and then rot. Sadly I was right. My neighbour however fared a lot better, as she was able to store her half of our onion swag in a cool, dark, place.
Most of us don't buy our onions in such large quantities. Even the largest of supermarket bags of onions are only about a kilogramme. However, if you do buy onions from markets or supermarkets that are in bags, large or small, it is still worth applying the same principles. If my onions are in a large plastic bag, then I transfer them to brown paper bags or loose-weave canvas or mesh shopping bags. I know of some people who store their onions in old pairs of tights (not usually associated with recycling, with a knot between each onion, to keep it separate from its peer. Assuming you have a good supply of tights and room to hang them, this seems like a fine idea!
When choosing which onion to cook, it is better to choose those with the thickest "neck" as these will generally be older. Assuming your onions haven't become slimy or mouldy, you can eat onions that have begun to sprout; just chop away the green parts which can be bitter.
You can also store peeled onions in the freezer. The downside of this is that it takes up a lot of space and, in my opinion, changes the texture and flavour of the onions. Clearly this isn't a problem if you prefer a mild flavour.
Chopping without tears
As for chopping onions, there seems to be all manner of strange and outlandish suggestions to prevent onion tears, from cutting your onions underwater, or chilling them first. Some have suggested wearing goggles; others say cut from the neck end, as the onion compounds are stronger at the root. Personally I don't bother. If it means I shall end up looking like some kind of demented panda, then so be it. Although one thing I have learned is that you can't cry and suck on a boiled sweet at the same time, or you'll choke. While I have been known to use this tactic to avoid copious crying, whether chopping onions or attending weddings and funerals, I couldn't possibly say whether it would work for you.
I'd like to add just one more thing. Cooking onions, particularly if you want to caramelise them, always takes longer than you think. If you see a recipe that says your onions will be soft after 5 minutes, don't believe it. My onions don't soften until at least 10 minutes have past and may take even longer. And if you're caramelising onions, then you'll need some 40 minutes of slow cooking with constant stirring to prevent the onions from burning.
1. Claudia Roden's baked kibbeh
This recipe is adapted from Claudia Roden's eponymous cookbook, A New Book of Middle Eastern Food. It's the first of her recipes that I cooked, attracted by its simplicity; a paste of minced lamb, couscous, grated onion and a little spice. You don't even need the manual dexterity to create the rugby ball-shaped kibbeh of Lebanon, you can just bake it in a tray, although here I've used cookie cutters to create thick burgers.
250g lamb mince
1 onion, chopped
half tsp salt
black pepper, to taste
1 tsp ground cinnamon
a pinch of ground allspice
Rinse the couscous in a fine-meshed sieve under cold running water. Drain well. Set aside.
Puree the onion in a food processor.
Add the meat, seasoning and spices to the food processor and continue to blend until it has become a rough paste.
Tip the paste into a large bowl. Add the drained couscous and knead until well-combined.
Heat the oven to 180C/Gas Mark 4.
Lightly oil a baking tray.
Form the paste into burger patties. (I used a deep cookie cutter to do this.) Place on the baking tray and brush with a little oil.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until cooked through.
Smooth the paste in a brownie tray or oven-proof dish. Oil as above and lightly score the top (as it will make cutting the baked kibbeh easier before serving). Bake for the kibbeh for longer - about 40 to 45 minutes. Cut into slices before serving.
Add lightly toasted, chopped pine nuts to the paste mixture before baking.
I served my kibbeh with a salad of baby gem leaves, pickled carrots and crumbled feta. They are lovely stuffed into flatbread with hummus too.
2. Stoemp with sausages and onion gravy
Stoemp is a sort of Belgian version of bubble 'n' squeak. A splash of vinegar added to the cabbage gives a lovely tang to the dish, particularly if you use cider vinegar with some meaty pork sausages.
700g potatoes, peeled and quartered
1-2 tbsp vegetable oil1 onion, chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
4-5 cabbage leaves (I used sweetheart) chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
120ml stock (chicken or vegetable)
1 tbsp cider vinegarwatera knob of butter
1-2 tbsp milkgood quality butchers' sausages (2-3 per person)
2 tbsp oil
2 English onions, peeled and thinly sliced
a pinch of sugar
2 tbsp red wine
150ml stock (I used mushroom)
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
freshly ground black pepper
Bring the potatoes to the boil in lightly salted water. Simmer for 15 to 20 minutes.
Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan. Add the onions together with a pinch of salt for 10 minutes, until beginning to soften.
Add the garlic and chopped cabbage. Gently fry for 3 minutes, stirring often.
Add the stock and vinegar and simmer for 10 minutes.
The cabbage should be cooked through and most of the liquid evaporated. Boil off any excess liquid and season to taste. Drain the potatoes well. Return to the pan and roughly mash with a knob of butter and a little milk. The potatoes should be crushed but not smooth.
Check the seasoning. Fold through the cooked onion and cabbage.
Pre-heat the oven to 190C/Gas Mark 5.
Tip the mixture into a lightly buttered ovenproof dish. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the potatoes are beginning to brown on top.
Cook the sausages to your liking. (I tend to bake mine for about 30 minutes at 190C/Gas Mark 5).
While the potato mixture is baking, make the gravy.
Heat a small saucepan, adding about 1 tablespoon of oil. Add the onions and a generous pinch of salt. Heat over a medium-low heat until they are softened and a golden brown colour. (This should take about 15 minutes.) Stir occasionally to ensure that the onions don't catch.
Add the sugar, red wine, stock and Worcestershire sauce. Simmer until the liquid has reduced. You want squidgy onions rather than a very runny gravy. Check the seasoning.
Serve the stoemp with hot sausages and onion gravy.
Replace the cabbage with chunks of cooked turnip.
Other ideas for using onions:
3. Much of what is thrown away is in fact the onion skin and root ends, the unavoidable part of the onion, which amounts to some 71,000 tonnes of the 130,000-tonne total in the UK, according to Wrap (pdf). I had always thought that the onion skin wasn't edible, using it for just adding colour and a rich flavour to homemade stock to, if feeling particularly artistic, using the skin to dye Easter eggs.
4. However, researchers at Cranfield University have identified pigments and flavonoids in onion skin which could be beneficial to human health. Since the skin is also high in fibre, it could be used to help reduce some diseases caused by cholesterol or high blood pressure.
5. An end of summer savoury jam uses roasted onions and tomatoes with chilies and soothing spices.
6. Rupert Kirby of Casa Rosada makes this beautiful fig and caramelised onion jam (the fact that he uses homegrown figs is frankly just boasting!)
7. I love Jeanne Horak-Druiff of CookSister's late summer risotto recipe with spaghetti squash, feta and chilli. It's a clever introduction to the spaghetti squash if you've never tried it!
8. Choclette of The Chocolate Log Blog is always a brilliant source of inspiration. Her caramelised onion and cocoa yoghurt dip is no exception.
9. As a fabulous Middle Eastern accompaniment, then Rachel Cotterill's Lebanese and chickpea flatbreads are very good indeed, made entirely with store-cupboard ingredients.
10. Yes, the nights are drawing in and the weather is getting colder and wetter. But we have something to look forward to like this warming onion, cider and double cheddar soup from Laura Scott.
11. Siobhan McGuinness of Vohn's Vittles has been pickling peppers with a little onion; a great way to taste summer's bounty through the winter months.
12. Stacy Rushton of Food Lust Love People makes a proper ceviche; (this is the perfect Peruvian dish, just as it should be).
13. Perhaps you stuff your onions, or in my case use the onions for stuffing in this heavenly Turkish stuffed aubergine recipe.
14. This is one of best onion bhaji recipes I have ever tried; naturally it is from Felicity Cloake's The Perfect ... series.
15. Camilla Hawkins of Fab Food 4 All makes this delicious and comforting cheesy bacon and potato bake with a little onion.
16. I love Karen Burns Booth of Lavender and Lovage's way of using up half an onion, in a classic hot pickled herring salad. It looks so very pretty too!
17. This green tomato and onion curry from Urvashi Roe is a gorgeous way of using up unripened tomatoes with just one onion, in a glorious spice paste, (although red tomatoes will work perfectly too).
18. Shaheen of Allotment 2 Kitchen makes these rich caramelised red onion and feta tarts with a mustard-cheese pastry.
19. If you have a load of onions, then I can thoroughly recommend Nigel Slater's mustardy baked onions. It didn't look pretty but gosh it tasted wonderful!
So how do you use up an onion? Perhaps on cheese toasties or in a baked spud, or would you top a pizza with roasted onions? A particular favourite of mine is the dopiaza curry (usually taken to mean a curry with a lot of onion), perhaps you have a favourite way of spicing up your onions? While onions have known health benefits, is there any truth in the old wives' tales that a warm onion poultice can sooth anything from tooth- to earache? And I have to admit I am a complete sucker for a string of onions with braided leaves, but I wonder whether this keeps them fresher for longer. Does anyone know if this is true or just wishful thinking on my behalf?
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Red onions. One of the workhorses of cooking. Photograph: Alamy