Know Your Alliums

Most savory recipes with staying power have a mutual friend: the allium. When I say friend, I really mean a whole crew — a litany of flavorful companions, including but not limited to cultivated onions, shallots, scallions, leeks, garlic, chives, ramps and more. This group has been pals for a while. In fact, we’ve been consuming onions for centuries — in Ancient Egypt, they were used as early as 3500 B.C.

These pungent, beautiful bulbs are inexpensive, easy to grow and play an integral role in packing a flavorful punch into the aromatic base of any recipe. Nowadays, we can find most varieties in stores year-round. It’s safe to say that most home cooks probably have some variety of onion or garlic on hand. But how well do you really know your alliums? Obviously, this is a heavy-duty, philosophical question for the ages, but never fear! We have done the legwork and developed a guide to getting the most out of these flavorful little buddies. After all, this might be our longest-lasting culinary relationship.

Let us begin with the all-purpose allium: yellow onions. These are often eaten cooked, as their astringency levels are much higher than other varieties, but can be eaten raw as well — looking at you, P. Terry’s. Yellow onions feature a sweetness that intensifies as they cook and a rich, deep brown color when caramelized, making them an incredibly attractive candidate for many a sauce, soup, stew and braise. When it comes to cooking with onions, you need not look further than this bountiful bulb. Of course, if you do, you can always reach for its slightly stronger cousin, the white onion, and it will serve you equally well.

Red onions skew less astringent and are sweeter, making them perfect for raw consumption. These purple-hued beauties are great minced into guacamole and salsas or placed atop sandwiches, in salads or anywhere you want to add a bright snap of acidity. Hot tip: Soak your red onions in water prior to serving raw if you feel their astringency is too high. Or, to up your taco game, you can pickle them easily. Just finely slice half a red onion, top with red wine vinegar, let sit for 20 minutes and strain.

What cipollini and pearl onions lack in size, they make up for in their flavor and roasting capabilities. Tiny pearl onions, with their mild, sweet flavor, are beyond delicious served whole in braises or gratins, roasted with meat and fish and so much more. These onions can be found in the frozen or fresh produce sections. When buying fresh, look for crisp, papery skins and always avoid brown spots.

alliums close up

Directly translated to “little onions” from Italian, cipollinis possess a thin skin and a higher sugar content than your average onion, making them ideal for roasting and easy caramelization without any residual raw onion flavor. While these might be harder to get your hands on than pearl onions, once you’ve experienced the beauty of their caramelization powers, I dare you not to drive to your out-of-the-way market to pick some up.   

Rounding out our bulbed varieties are the popular garlic and shallot. Often used together in sautés, these alliums’ combined powers bring an irreplaceable depth of flavor to any dish. Shallots are more closely related to onions and therefore have a higher burning temperature than garlic does. Shallots, once cut, like to live in the refrigerator, while garlic enjoys a cool, dark environment just like red, white, yellow, pearl and cipollini onions.

Now, to broach the scallion, green onion and spring onion debate. First things first: scallions and green onions are one in the same. These commonly used onions are either harvested before forming bulbs or come from varieties that never form bulbs at all. When choosing green onions, look for brightly colored, stiff greens and a firm, white base. After washing, pat dry and wrap in a damp paper towel for longer-lasting refrigerator storage. While these stalky bundles of flavor can be found year-round, they peak in the spring and summer months. While spring onions may look similar, they have a bulb that imparts stronger flavor than the whites of a scallion, making them not exactly interchangeable when eaten raw. However, give them a light sauté, and they become downright comparable. Often used as a garnish, these beauties are not to be undersold. Their bright, piquant acidity lends itself to dressings, salads and marinades. Leave them whole, and they grill up beautifully alongside meat or fish. The versatility of the green onion knows no bounds.

Often bypassed for more common onion varieties, leeks are a true gem of the allium world. They can be utilized the same way you might utilize a yellow onion — say, in a mirepoix, a classic cooking base composed of onion, celery and carrot. However, the flavor leeks impart is milder and sweeter. When sautéed, they caramelize beautifully and possess a melty quality that serves as an amazing base for soups, braises, stews and more. In fact, they are responsible for all the flavor in the base of the delicious roasted cauliflower and leek soup featured here. Like their stalky relatives, scallions and chives, leeks enjoy refrigerator storage. They also contain a fair amount of sand and grit, so they need a very thorough washing, with extra attention between the leaves, prior to using.

This whole group of ground-dwelling tear inducers often play a supporting role in beloved dishes. However, if they disappeared, even the staunchest onion haters would miss their depth and flavor. Onions and their many varieties prove themselves time and time again to be the unsung heroes of the produce department. No other produce section ingredient stretches both dollars and flavors quite like the allium.

Written and photographed by Dani Colombatto