I'm crying as I write this (sniff, sniff)--not over some personal tragedy (sniff) or even a Hallmark commercial (sniff), but because I just chopped an onion.
You see, when you cut an onion, you release sulfur compounds. They combine with the fluids in and around your eyes to create a weak sulfuric acid and your eyes water to flush it away.
What can you do to prevent this? Other than have someone else chop the onions, not much. Chilling the onions seems to help, as does rinsing them frequently as you cut them, and you can even wear form-fitting safety goggles (if you don't mind the odd stares). A sharp knife is key, because it will tear the cells less than a dull one and reduce the amount of sulfides released. Since there are more sulfur compounds in the root end, saving it for last may help, too.
Finding a way to reduce the sad effects of onions has been the goal of cooks for centuries, because for centuries, the onion has been a staple in the kitchen. Since ancient times, they have been a traditional food of the poor, often combined with bread to make a meal. In fact, the code of Hammurabi, the oldest set of laws known, required that those in need receive a monthly stipend of onions and bread.
Today, this member of the lily family is one of the most common foods eaten all over the world. You'll find several types of onions in your local store: white, yellow, red and sweet.
White are the hottest, yellow have less bite, red onions still less, and sweet onions (varieties like Vidalia, Walla Walla and Texas 1015 SuperSweet) are the mildest of all. Use white and yellow for cooking (the flavor of red and sweet types just doesn't hold up.) Red onions are terrific on sandwiches and in salads, and sweet onions are perfect for simple snacking.
The hotter the onion, the more sulfur compounds, as a rule. Those sweet onions are sweet because of low sulfur and high water content. Because of the high water content, they don't store well, so enjoy them in early spring and summer.
Storage onions have thicker skins and were cured to keep for several weeks up to a few months, depending on type. For longest storage, refrigerate onions--especially sweet varieties--because the refrigerator is as close as we can get to root cellars today. I use onions often, so I keep them out and handy. Store onions and potatoes away from each other, because in storage, the combination causes each to rot. (Yuck.)
Cooked, of course, potatoes and onions are a match made in the garden. These root crops blend in everything from potato salad to hash browns.
Onions don't last well if cut unless they're used in a recipe where they will be covered, such as in potato salad. Why? Those good old sulfides again, which react with the air and produce off flavors. If you do need to prepare them ahead of time, you can soak them in ice water for a few hours (that will also reduce their heat).
Modern cooks use onions not as a staple, but as an accent--sautéed with meats, sliced on sandwiches--rarely are onions allowed to shine on their own.
Cooking sweetens onions and tames their heat. For instance, baking or roasting an onion whole brings out a sweet side that makes it a terrific accompaniment to roast or grilled meats. Peel the onions, slice a little off the bottoms so they will sit flat in a pan, drizzle them with melted butter then bake them at 425 degrees for an hour.
And onion rings--ooh, they are one of my favorite decadent treats--battered, not breaded, of course. I can't resist huge slices of crisply crusted, melt in your mouth onion rings. This recipe calls for beer in the batter, which produces a terrifically light batter with delicious flavor.
Beer Battered Onion Rings
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 can beer
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 peanut oil
Oil for frying
Mix the flour and salt. Next, beat together the eggs and beer (use whatever type you like) with the oil, then stir that into the flour mixture, beating it the whole time. Let it stand for at least half an hour.
As for the onion, you can choose sweet or hot types, depending on your taste. Slice it into 1-inch thick slices right before you're ready to batter and cook them.
Heat the oil (at least 3 inches of it) to 355 degrees in a heavy pan. Separate the onion slices into rings and dip them, one by one, into the batter. Immediately drop them into the hot oil. Cook the onions until they are golden brown (three to five minutes), then remove them and allow them to drain on several layers of paper towels or a cookie rack. Cook the rings in batches, and serve them immediately.
Did you know Chicago is named for onions? Wild onions grew abundantly along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, and the local Indian tribe called the plant's odor "chicago."
Gives a whole new meaning to "the windy city," doesn't it?