Onions are endlessly versatile and an essential ingredient in countless recipes. Native to Asia, these underground bulbs are prized all over the world for the depth and flavour that they add to savoury dishes. Dry onions are fully matured, with juicy flesh and dry, papery skin and have a pungent flavour that becomes wonderfully sweet upon lengthy cooking.
Varieties of onion differ in size, strength and colour. The yellow onion is the most commonly known variety; it has pale golden skin, greenish-white flesh and a strong taste. Red onions are an attractive, milder alternative to the yellow onion with their shiny purple skin and red-tinged flesh. Shallots are a sub-species of onion; they are small and boast a delicate flavour integral to French cooking. Spring onions are immature onions pulled before the bulb is fully formed, and can be recognised by their long green leaves. Like red onions, they are fairly mild and often used raw in salads.
When chopped, onions produce a volatile, sulphur-rich oil that makes eyes water. Over the years cooks have devised many ways to prevent this - freezing the onion; wearing goggles or holding your breath - but they are rarely completely effective. The best way is to not cut through the root of the onion, as this is where most of the oil resides.
Dry and spring onions are available all year-round. As a result, there is usually little need to resort to onion powder (ground dehydrated onion), onion salt (onion powder and salt), onion flakes or onion flavouring cubes, which are of inferior quality to the real thing. Pickled onions are also available.
Choose Strong-Smelling Onions
The strongest-smelling onions provide the most health benefits. The best choice is shallots, followed by yellow onions, red onions, and then white onions. As a general rule, the more an onion makes your eyes water, the better it is for your health.
Although uncut onions should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place, cut onions should be either placed in a sealed container or wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerated immediately. If cut onions aren’t covered, their nutrient content diminishes rapidly. Freezing chopped onions is not recommended because they lose much of their flavour.
As with other herbs, spices, and produce, raw and fresh provides maximum health benefits. However, many people can’t tolerate raw onions. Research studies have indicated that the beneficial flavonoid quercetin (also found in caffeinated teas and red grapes) isn’t destroyed by most cooking methods, though it is decreased by boiling. However, other compounds may be destroyed by heat, so onions should be cooked just long enough to make them tolerable in order to preserve their health-promoting phytonutrients.
Cutting onions under cold running water is a common strategy for reducing eye irritation, but this can decrease their potency by washing away beneficial phytonutrients. To reduce eye irritation, chill onions in the freezer for 20 minutes before cutting and use a really sharp knife.
Onion Nutrition Facts
If tears come to your eyes whenever you slice an onion, you'll be glad to know that your tears are not shed in vain. The very compounds that give onions their pungency, taste and smell have been identified as substances that may fight cancer.
Scientists believe that onions and other members of the allium family, such as garlic, leeks, chives and shallots, may be a significant dietary factor by protecting us from certain forms of cancer. The onion first attracted the attention of the scientific community in 1989 when a study was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute finding that people who ate the largest amount of vegetables in the onion and garlic family were less likely to develop stomach cancer than those who did not.
Onions contain as many as 150 phytochemicals. The flavonoid quercetin, an antioxidant (phytochemical) found in onions, helps eliminate free radicals in the body, inhibits low-density lipoprotein oxidation, protects and regenerates vitamin E, and helps to circumvent the harmful effects of heavy metal ions. Other sources of quercetin are tea and apples, but research shows that absorption of quercetin from onions is twice that from tea and more than three times that from apples.
Onions may also have a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels, according to some studies. Researchers found that people who eat an onion a day can raise their “good” (HDL) cholesterol, says Dr. Barry Sears in his book The Top 100 Zone Foods. Onions may also prevent the biochemical chain of events that leads to asthma and inflammatory reactions.
Health Benefits of Onion
Onions provide many of the same anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and cardiovascular benefits as garlic, as well as helping to lower blood sugar. Eating onions just two or three times a week can lower the risk of colon and ovarian cancer significantly. Onions also help to maintain bone health, and are a source of many nutrients including vitamins B6 and C, dietary fiber, chromium, folate, manganese, molybdenum, potassium, copper, and phosphorus.
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