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Allium cepa

Photo courtesy of Horticulture New Zealand


Onions are one of the most fundamental ingredients in cooking, and should be in every pantry.

Most varieties of onion are interchangeable with one another in cooking, but for eating raw it’s best to use a milder variety, such as the red onion.

Like their relation garlic, onions have long been the subject of old wives’ tales about their health benefits, and are believed to help everything from sea urchin bites to colds to diabetes. They also contain a lot of phenols and flavonoids, which give them antioxidant properties, but it has not yet been demonstrated conclusively that eating more onions is directly linked to the health benefits they’re widely said to give. But it’s still worth including plenty of onion in your diet – from them you’ll get vitamin C, potassium, fibre and folate, as well as calcium and iron.

Choose onions that feel firm, show no signs of sprouting or mould, and have clean, dry skins. Store in a cool, dark place.



The onion has been used for millennia as a medicine. The Romans ate it to give them extra strength before going into battle, which the ancient Greeks believed it would balance the blood. They were also highly regarded by the Egyptians; workers were paid in onions as currency, and they were put in tombs for pharaohs to take them along to the afterlife.


What can’t you do with an onion? They’re an important basic ingredient in soups, stews, and casseroles, especially meat-based ones, and give extra bite to salads. Just sauté them gently in a little butter or oil before adding the rest of your ingredients, trying not to brown them too much.

French onion soup is a quick, easy dish that anyone who likes onions will enjoy. Slice four onions and fry them on a low heat in butter or olive oil until soft and golden brown, which will take about 15 minutes. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of flour and season with salt and pepper. Slowly pour in a litre of beef stock, bring it to the boil, turn the heat back down and simmer for 20 minutes. Toast slices of French bread, rub with garlic, and float in bowls of the soup. Sprinkle generously with gruyere or parmesan cheese and grill until the cheese is golden and bubbling.


It’s the sulphur compounds in onions that are responsible for making you cry. When you cut an onion, you cut through cells that are full of enzymes that turn into sulphenic acid, which turns to gas when it hits the air and irritates your eyes. There are innumerable myths as to how to stop this, but the best way is to rinse the onions before slicing, or chill them first.

Eating parsley can help tone down the ‘onion breath’ after eating raw onions.

The name onion comes from the Latin unio, which means ‘large pearl’.

Parsnips »« Okra


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