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Ingredient Spotlight: Onions - Modern Alternative KitchenModern Alternative Kitchen

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Image by Darwin Bell

What’s the most used vegetable in your house?  In my house it’s the humble onion.  Thanks to Christopher Columbus, and other explorers who brought domesticated onions to the Americas, we eat onions almost every day.   Most of us eat onions for the unique flavor they add to food.  But  did you know they pack some great health benefits as well?

Onions are members of the Allium family along with their cousins garlic,  leeks, shallots and chives.   Alliums are rich in sulfur compounds.  It’s the sulfur compounds that are responsible for the onions strong odor, eye irritation and  many of it’s health promoting properties.  The next time your eyes sting when you peel an onion, you can know that some of the chemicals involved in that reaction are actually beneficial to your health and your momentary discomfort is  worth it!

Cultures have used alliums medicinally for thousands of year.  Alliums are a subject of current research because they have properties that:

  • protect against cardiovascular disease
  • protect against cancer
  • protect against microbial and viral infections.
  • reduce blood glucose levels
  • stimulate immune function
  • improve memory loss

Onions are very high in a sulfur containing flavonoid called quercetin.   Quercetin bestows many of the health benefits of onions.  Quercetin acts as an antioxidant, keeping inflammation in check.


There are two main types of large bulb onions: storage onions and spring/summer onions.

Storage onions are grown in cooler climates, dried for several months and are usually named by their color.  Red onions, yellow onions, white onions and Spanish onions fall into this category.

Spring/summer onions are grown in warm weather climates and are sweeter than storage onions.  Popular varieties are Mui, Vidalia and Walla Walla.

When purchasing onions look for onions that are clean, have no openings in the neck, and have crisp dry skins.  Avoid sprouting onions or onions with visible mold.  Don’t purchase onions that have a strong scent.  They are in the process of decaying.  We’ve found that buying onions in 50# bags offers a significant cost savings and I love the fact that I rarely run out of onions.

Though onions are on the Clean 15 list, meaning they were found to have the lowest pesticide residue by the Environmental Working Group,  conventionally grown onions are often irradiated to prevent them from sprouting. Purchasing organically grown onions is a way to avoid this.

Store onions in a cool, dry, well-ventilated space with minimal light.  Moisture and ethylene gas from potatoes will reduce the storage life of onions, so avoid storing them together.

Image by The Dark Thing


When you cut into an onion you rupture cells.  The ruptured cells release enzymes which react to cause the  chemical vapors that irritate our eyes.  Using a sharp knife ruptures fewer cells and may reduce the irritating chemicals released.  Also, avoid sitting when cutting onions.  Standing keeps your eyes farther away from the gases. These are other ways to lessen the irritation:

  1. Peel and chop the stem end of the onion first.  The root end contains more of the alliinase enzymes that start the chemical reactions that irritate the eyes.
  2. Peel and chop onions under water.  This works very well at keeping the gases from reaching your eyes.  I suspect, though, that this method washes away some of the nutrients and quercetin.  Quercetin is especially high in the outer layers of the onion.
  3. Refrigerate onions first.  Refrigerating the onions slows the enzymes from releasing the irritating vapors.  The drawback to this is that you have to remember to refrigerate the onions ahead of time.
  4. Cutting the onions near the stove with the vent fan on will help draw the irritating vapors away.
  5. Wear goggles.  Not too practical for every day cooking, but it does prevent irritating gases from reaching the eyes.  Contact wearers may notice a slight benefit as the gases reach the eyes at a slower rate.

Onions are probably the most versatile vegetable out there.  Adding caramelized onions to your meal can elevate a plain dish from good to great.  You can even caramelize onions in the crockpot!

Though cooking onions until they are richly browned and caramelized is super yummy, a healthier option is sauteing onions, since they cook for a shorter time.  This is my most common way of preparing onions these days.  They are good on anything!  The recipe measurements are approximations.


2 medium onions
1/4- 1/2 cup meat stock or broth
1/4 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut the onions into 1/4 in slices.  Heat the stock to a gentle simmer and add the onions.  Cover and cook for 5-7 minutes or until they reach the desired tenderness.  Stir in the olive oil and add salt and pepper.
Other onion posts by Modern Alternative Kitchen contributors:
French Onion Quesadillas
How to Clean and Peel an Onion
Chicken Paprika

What’s you favorite way to use onions?


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  1. […] You’ll find the rest of this article over at Modern Alternative Kitchen where I’m posting today.  Click here to finish reading.  […]


  2. I do love caramelized onions. So simple, yet so delicious… and they go well with pretty much anything.

    That’s the coolest photo of an onion I’ve ever seen, BTW.


  3. Very thorough and informative. Thanks for all the great tips!


  4. Hi – I hate onions and am allergic to raw onions especially the purple/red ones. Yet…i need the flavor in some items namely meatballs and my stuffing.

    I burn a candle next to where i’m chopping the onions – that seems to help with the eye irritation.


  5. bahahahaha! could you imagine?? I’m so strapping on some swimming goggles next time i chop any onions. hilarious!

    thank you for sharing your post with us at the Wednesday Fresh Foods Link Up! I hope to see you again this week with more incredible seasonal and whole/real fresh food ideas 🙂 xo, kristy


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