Julia Child once declared, “I cannot imagine a world without onions”, and many a chef would agree.
Part of the allium family of herbaceous flowering plants, a group that also counts garlic, shallots, leeks and chives as members, onions are thought to have originated in Asia. One of the earliest cultivated crops, today they are possibly the world’s most universal food and without a doubt, one of the most important ingredients in a cook’s arsenal.
While readily available all year round, onions do have a season. Planted in the winter, new season onions begin to be dug up just before Christmas. This early crop has their green tops hand clipped before the bulbs are lifted out of the ground and left in the sun to dry. Drying the skins off helps to protect the onions, which can be stored for nearly a year. By mid-January the main harvest is underway and by April the year’s crop will all be safely tucked away in storage.
Onions form the base flavour of many dishes, including stocks, braises and soups, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be the hero. Lightly batter for the classic onion ring, caramelised to make a versatile relish, fill a tart or top a pizza. Bake or slow cook to bring out their sweetness or create a stunning onion rose. Cook with hardy herbs like thyme, rosemary and sage. Balance their sweetness with tart balsamic vinegar or sharp cheeses. Finely sliced raw red onions or spring onions add an intensity to salads that lift them above the side salad status. Red onion in a Greek salad or try spring onion in an Asian slaw.
Most of the year a cool, dark spot away from your potatoes is the best way to store onions. Towards the end of the season (October/November) you may want to pop them in the fridge, especially the red ones, to stop them from sprouting. Red onions are generally imported from the US at the end of the year to supplement supply if required.
Everyone’s go–to onion. When a recipe calls for an onion, this is the guy. With a sharp flavour, the brown onion comes into its own when cooked. The sulphuric flavour turns to sweetness, creating the perfect base to many recipes.
Sweetness is what sets the red onion apart from the common brown. That natural sweetness makes them perfect for pickling or for caramelising. That sweetness can also counter the strong onion flavour and why, if sliced very thinly, you can get away with adding them to salads raw. The other obvious draw to a red onion is its colour. That deep red hue provides a vibrant pop of colour that other onions just can’t.
Also known as scallions, these sweet and mild onions are all about freshness and texture. Their gentle onion flavour gets stronger the closer you get to the dark green tops.
Favoured by chefs for their sweetness, very few home cooks bother with these fiddly, often double bulbed onions. In Asian cuisines thinly sliced shallots are deep fried and used as a delicious crunchy addition to dishes from congee to curry. Slowly roasted, their sweetness is accentuated.
The humidity in New Zealand makes growing white onions, an onion popular overseas which is eaten raw in salads and sandwiches, problematic. Trials are underway for an onion that would fit this bill in New Zealand. Perhaps not a white onion, it is a milder onion, but the downside is it doesn’t keep as long as New Zealand’s hero onion the Pukekohe Long Keeper.
Grow – the majority of New Zealand onions are grown in Pukekohe with 85% being exported. Onions are New Zealand’s largest export to Europe, Pacific and Asia.
Other growing regions (for the map): By Volume;
- Hawke’s Bay
Slicing into a fresh onion creates a chemical reaction that forms sulphur compounds responsible for both the pungent smell and the stream of tears running down your face.
Prepared produce can help avoid those tears, reduce prep time and increase yield. Both red and brown onions can be prepped in a variety of diced and sliced sizes, peeled options, and even pastes.