Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Onions 101

Closely related to lilies, the onion family (Allium) offers rich variety and a broad spectrum of flavors, from the mild and tender leek to the fiery punch of garlic. Unlike fragrant garden lilies, Alliums are rich in sulphur, which gives them their vivid flavor and distinctive aroma.

Hmm, so which one of those is a shallot again?

Wait, what is the difference between scallions and green onions?

Would a white, yellow, or red onion be best for this recipe?

If you're sometimes confused about which onion is which and what their differences are, you're in very good company. But it's time to put befuddling questions like these to rest. Let's start with scallions.

Scallions actually aren't a variety of onion, but an early stage in the onion life cycle; these "green onions" are most often the young greens of immature globe onions, harvested when thick as a pencil and at least 6 inches tall.

It takes an average of 60 days to get scallions from seed. You can also plant onion sets (tiny onions) instead of seeds for scallions. You'll get them a lot faster that way, in only a few weeks. If you plant sets in wide row, plant 2-3 inches apart each way. To grow scallions in a pot, scatter seeds in a 12-inch pot and then gradually thin to about 18 plants. The soil in the container should be at least 8 inches deep, spacing ultimately 1 to 4 inches apart.

Globe onions (Allium cepa) start out as green onions and mature to big bulbous roots once their tops wither. Globe onions come in yellow, white, purple, red, Bermuda, and many other varieties. Different varieties do better in different parts of the country; it pays to ask at your local nursery what does well in your area. In general, white varieties are milder and make better green onions; they are also the kind you raise to get little "pickling" onions. Yellow varieties are the best for winter-keeping; red varieties, although sweetest of all, do not store well.

Again, globe onions may be started from seed or from sets. Seeds are by far the most economical and produce beautiful scallions, but sets give you a head start on the growing season and a quicker harvest.

As you plant, remember onions are heavy feeders and dislike competition from other plants including weeds. Either sets or seed grow well in cool, wet spring weather; irrigate in a dry spring for the best results. Pulling scallions actually improves conditions for the remaining onions by loosening their soil as well as removing competition.

Ideally, onions should be left in the ground until they mature and the tops dry up. If you are satisfied with the size of the bulbs, you can hurry the maturing process by twisting or knocking over the still-green tops. Wait a few days to pull or dig the bulbs. Spread the bulbs out on top of the ground or in a warm dry room until the tops are thoroughly dry. Bag and store in the dark.

One last tip: Be sure to use smaller onions first, as they do not keep as well as larger bulbs.

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