< Vegetables



Allium cepa

Variable in color, stature, and configuration, the onion is a biennial bulb forming plant, native to Asia, related to the Lily, and global in its cultivation. Some believe it to be the single most widely used vegetable in western cuisine, contributing its sweet notes to a host of composite dishes, a piquancy to salads, and richness to soups. It leafy stalk behaves like an annual plant, dying upon maturation; the bulb remains viable over winter, and a flower stalk emerges in the second year, growing in most cases three feet or more, and expressing a white or rosy umbel (ball-shaped flower). These form small blackish triangular seeds. Only plants with perfectly formed large bulbs get transplanted to a seeding bed in April and must be staked to support the flower stalk. With the notables exception of the tree onion and the potato onion, onions are grown from seed; the seeds retain viability for two years. Preferring a loamy friable soil free of stones and exposed to unshaded sun, gardeners plant in the early spring (February in the South), sowing the seed in shallow holes drilled 14 inches apart in rows 30 inches wide. The intervening space can be intercropped with cabbages or corn. The drill holes for the onion seed should be shallow for most bulbs grow on the surface, not under the ground. Weeding is particularly important. Most onion varieties take a minimum of seven months to mature fully, coming ripe in August or September in most growing regions. At the same time the umbels turn brown in the seed bed, signaling the time to cut them, thresh the seed, and dry it in the sun. One unusual dimension of the traditional cultivation of the onion was its repeated growing in the same beds, for farmers observed no appreciable degradation of soil from year to year, if a standard manuring or compost regime had been followed.

The potato onion instead of forming its bulb above ground produces a cluster of subterranean bulbs. These are cultivated by offsets. Certain forms of this onion do not produce flower stalks.

The Tree Onion (Allium proliferum)—or Canadian Onion (honoring the country that introduced the plant to the United States circa 1820)—is a perennial species famed for its hardiness, enjoyed growing popularity over the nineteenth century, particularly in northern regions. It forms small bulbs on the tops of its seed stems. This is also called the “top onion”. In the south the small bulblets were planted in early October and grown over the winter. Because the taste of the bulbs and stems tends to be sharp, they are used more carefully in cookery than standard onions.

“It ought to be more generally known that the disagreeable odor left by any of the onion family upon the breath may be removed by chewing and swallowing a few grains of roasted coffee. No more nutritious vegetable ever finds its way to our tables; and it is greatly to be regretted that the unpleasant result just named should deter so many from eating it. It is especially beneficial to brain-workers and nervous invalids—the very people least like to use it.” [1]

Standard onions were generally categorized by color—red, yellow, white or silver-skin—seasonality—early, standard, late—and form—globe and flat. In gardening circles, a European pedigree became a fashionable attraction in in the 1870s. Names were arbitrary, with seedsmen putting their own proprietary monikers on standard market varieties.

1. Mrs. Washington, The Unrivalled Cook-Book and Housekeeper’s Guide (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886), p. 199.

Blood Red (French Bood Red, Dutch Blood-Red)     History

- Bulb middle-sized, or rather large, flattened; skin dull red,--the coating next within glossy, and very dark red. The internal layers are palest at the base; and except at the top, are only colored on their outsides. Each layers is paler than the one which surrounds it; till the centre is reached, which is white. It is a good keeper, but one of the strongest flavored of all varieties. It imparts to soups, or other dishes of which it may be an ingredient, a brownish or blackish color. [Burr]

New Giant Rocca, of Naples    History

- a splendid large Onion, of globular shape, and light brown skin; Weight as exhibited at the Royal Horticultural Society, of London, 8 lbs., 9 oz. New Foreign Onions.—For two years past there has been a good deal of excitement among seedsmen and gardeners in Europe, respecting some new Italian Onions, of monstrous size, sometimes weighing as high as four pounds, and of very mild and superior flavor. After learning all we could about these Onions, we thought they might prove well adapted to the Southern States, and obtaining seed last season, sent samples to several of the leading Agriculturists of the South for trial. The report in nearly every case was favorable and highly encouraging, so much so that I feel warranted in offering it for sale. Make the soil very rich.”—Vick’s Illustrated Seed Catalogue, 1871.

Large Blood Red Italian Tripoli    History

- more flat than the preceding, quite as large, and blood red. New Foreign Onions

Large Flat White Italian Tripoli    History

- very pure white skin, flat, very mild flavor, and as large either of the above. New Foreign Onions

Early Flat White Italian Tripoli    History

- beautiful white skin, very mild, of rapid growth, early. New Foreign Onions

Extra Early Red    History

- a medium sized, flat variety; abundant producer, and very uniform shape & size; moderately strong flavored, and comes into use nearly two weeks earlier than the Large Red Wethersfield; great for market use.

Wethersfield Red    History

- one of the best varieties for a general crop; of good size, red; the favorite in the east, where immense crops are grown for shipment; stronger flavored than any other kinds and the best keeper; succeeds in any climate.

Early Red Globe    History

- a comparatively new variety, maturing as early as the flat sort; globe shaped; skin deep red; flesh mild and tender.

Red Bassano of Genoa    History

- well adapted to the climate of the Southern States

Large Madeira, (Large Lobe Tripoli, New Giant)    History

- This is a roundish, obovate onion, of remarkable size, often measuring six inches and a half in depth, and six inches in diameter; neck thick and large; skin reddish-brown,--the layer next within, pale red. The variety is much prized for its extraordinary size, and for its mild, sugary flavor.

Brown Portugal (Brown Spanish)    History

- A medium-sized, roundish, or flattened onion; neck small; skin yellowish-brown,--next interior layer not tinged with red. It is a popular variety in some parts of France; and is remarkable for it productiveness, excellent quality, and keeping properties.

Danvers Yellow    History

- an early, productive, good keeping, mildly flavored. This comparatively recent variety (1860s) was obtained by selection from the Common Yellow. It is somewhat above medium size, and inclined to clobular in its form. The flesh is similar to that of the Yellow,--white, sugary, comparatively mild, and well flavored. [A major market variety.]

Large Yellow, or Yellow Dutch    History

- a fine, large, flat Onion; forms bulbs readily; one of the oldest sorts, and as a market variety, probably better known than any other; mild flavor.

Large Strasburg    History

- flesh-colored; large; good keeper and productive. This is variety most generally cultivated in Great Britain. Its form varies from flato to blobular, or oval; bulb lare, three inches wide, and full two inches in depth; outside coating brown, of firm texture. Flavor comparatively mild. It is a very hardy sort, succeeds in cold localities and keeps well. The Strasburg . . . much resembles the common Yellow Onion of New England.

Silver-Skinned    History

- true, white; delicate; early; not a good keeper.

White Portugal, or American Silverskin    History

- a large white Onion, resembling the Silver-Skinned and as large as the Danvers Yellow.

White Lisbon    History

- a very pretty, round, white Onion, almost 4 inches in diameter, a good keeper, and a splendid variety for warm climates, like the South or Southwest.

White Globe    History

- yields abundantly; sometimes called Southport White Globe.

El Paso, or Large Mexican    History

- grows in Mexico to a diameter of six inches and to a weight of two or three pounds; color variable from white to light red; flesh white, rather coarse grained, but of very mild flavor. Resembles a mammoth White Portugal.

Early White Nocera, or Queen    History

- a silver-skinned variety, of quick growth and remarkable keeping qualities; has a mild flavor, recommended for pickling.

New Queen    History

- a silver-skinned variety, of quick growth and remarkable keeping qualities. If sown in February, it will produce onions one to two inches in diameter early in summer, which will keep until the following summer; if sown in July, will be ready to pull late in autumn and good for a year. Ideal for pickles.

White Calabria    History

- New (as of 1883); large, silver-white round onion, with slightly pinkish tint like that of Southport White Globe; noted to have weighed in at 25 ounces.

Silver White Etna    History

- New (as of 1883); medium size, oval shaped, skin white with slight yellow tinge, thin and tough.

Silver White Nocera    History

- New (as of 1883); a small, delicate white onion, extra fine for pickling.

Early White Naples    History

- of quick growth, large size, and mild flavor; selected from the Red Italian Tripoli for its distinctive size, earliness, and beautiful silver skin.

New Neapolitan Marzagole    History

- a beautiful silvery white-skinned variety.

To Dress Raw Onions (Housekeeping in Old Virginia 1879)    History

[Recipe by Mrs. S. T.] Slice and chop fine, and put in weak salt and water till just before dinner. Then drain off and dress with half a teacup vinegar, two tablespoonfuls pepper vinegar, two tablespoonfuls made mustard, two tablespoonfuls white sugar, one tablespoonful salt. Lay a large lump of ice on top, and garnish with curled parsley; which, eaten after onions, is said to remove the scent from the breath. Marion Cabell Tyree, Housekeeping in Old Virginia (Louisville: John P. Morton, 1879), p. 240.

Roast Onions (Cook’s Own Book 1840)    History

Roast them with the skins on in a Dutch oven, that they may brown equally. They are eaten with cold fresh butter, pepper, and salt. A Boston Housekeeper, The Cook’s Own Book, and Housekeeper’s Register (Boston: Munroe & Francis, 1840), p. 126.

Fried Onions (Mrs. Elliott’s Housewife 1870)    History

Cut them in thin slices and season them; have a piece of fat bacon frying to get the juice, take it out, and put the onions in and stir until a pretty brown. Mrs. Sarah A. Elliott, Mrs. Elliott’s Housewife containing Practical Receipts in Cookery (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1870), p. 100.

Flaked Onions (Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts 1870)    History

Boil two good-sized Spanish onions in plain water, put aside until cold. Flake on two forks; season to taste. Make some butter very hot in a frying-pan, put the onions into it, and toss over the fire till brown. Drain, and serve on toast with parsley. S. Annie Frost, The Godey’s Lady’s Book Receipts and Household Hints (Philadelphia: Evans, Stoddart & Co., 1870), p. 173.

Onion Fritters (Nurse’s Handbook of Cookery 1897)    History

[Sara Josepha Hale speaks of onion fritters—French fried onion rings—as an ideal accompaniment for meat in 1852, but offered no recipe.] Peel and parboil two large Spanish onions; then drain them and cut them in slices, taking care not to break the rings, about a quarter of an inch thick. Lay them on a buttered dish or baking-tin, sprinkle with pepper and salt, cover with buttered paper, and bake from fifteen to twenty minutes, or until tender. Then cover well with batter, fry a golden brown, drain well, and serve at once. E. M. Worsnop & M. C. Blair, The Nurse’s Handbook of Cookery (London: Adam and Charles, 1897), p. 54.

Stewed Onions (Unrivalled Cook-Book 1886)    History

Young onions should always be cooked in this way: Top, tail, and skin them; lay them in cold water half an hour or more, then put into a saucepan with hot water enough to cover them; when half done, throw off all the water except a small teacupful—less, if your mess is small; add a like quantity of milk, a large spoonful of butter, with pepper and salt to taste; stew gently until tender, and turn into a deep dish. If the onions are strong and large, boil in three waters, throwing away all of the first and second, and reserving a very little of the third to mix with the milk. Mrs. Washington, The Unrivalled Cook-Book and Housekeeper’s Guide (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886), p. 199.

Onions Stewed (Cook’s Own Book 1840)    History

Peel five or six large onions, put them into a Dutch oven or cheese-toaster to roast, turn the frequently, and when they are well browned, put them into a saucepan, with a bone of dressed or undressed meat, a slice of bacon, a little water, and some pepper. Cover the pan closely, and stew them till tender. Take out the bone and the bacon; thicken the sauce with a bit of butter rolled in flour. A Boston Housekeeper, The Cook’s Own Book, and Housekeeper’s Register (Boston: Munroe & Francis, 1840), p. 126.

Ragout of Onions (Mrs. Hale’s New Book of Cookery 1852)    History

Having peeled the onions, brown them in a Dutch oven, and put them into a stew-pan with any meat bones, a slice of lean bacon, a little water, and some pepper; stew them till tender, when take out the bone and bacon, and thicken the gravy. The onions should be spread in one layer in the stew-pan. Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale, Mrs. Hale’s New Book of Cookery and Complete Housekeeper (New York: H. Long & Brother, 1852), p. 242.

Onions a la Crème (Virginia Cookery 1885)    History

Boil a dozen fine, white silver-skinned onions in several waters, to take out some of the pungent taste, and then peel them, and dry them off in a cloth until cold enough to handle, and slice them; have ready a good pinto of grated bread-crumbs, a quarter of a pound of butter, and a teacupful of cream, or rich milk, if you have not cream. Distribute all these ingredients in layers of onion, and seasoning alternately, with the addition of pepper and salt, and you will have a dish much admired, by gentlemen particularly. Finish off with a thick layer of bread-crumbs; our on the cup of cream lastly, and bake for three-quarters of an hour. Mary Stuart Smith, Virginia Cookery-Book (New York: Harper & Brother, 1885), pp. 131-32.

Baked Onions (Common Sense 1874)    History

The large Spanish or Bermuda onions are the only kinds which are usually baked. Wash clean, but do not remove the skins. Boil and hour—the water should be boiling when they are put in, and slightly salt. Change it twice during this time, always replenishing with more, boiling-hot. Turn off the water, taken the onions out and lay upon a cloth, that all the moisture may be absorbed or evaporate. Roll each in a round piece of buttered tissue-paper, twisting it at the top to keep it closed, and bake in a slow over nearly an hour. When tender all through, peel them, put them into a deep dish, and brown slightly basting with butter freely. This will take perhaps a quarter of an hour more. Serve in a vetetable dish, and pour over the melted butter, when you have sprinkled with pepper and salt. Marion Harland, Common Sense in the Household (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1874), p. 229.

Stuffed Onions (Unrivalled Cook-Book 1886)    History

Wash and skin very large Bermuda onions; lay in cold water an hour; parboil in boiling water half an hour; drain, and while hot extract the hearts, taking care not to break the outer layers; chop the inside thus obtained very fine, with a little cold fat or bacon; add bread crumbs, pepper, salt, mace, and wet with a spoonful or two of cream; bind with a well-beaten egg, and work into a smooth paste; stuff the onions with this; put into a dripping-pan with a very little hot water; turn off the water; take the onions out and lay upon a cloth, that all the moisture may be absorbed or evaporate; roll each in a round piece of buttered tissue paper, twisting in the top to keep it closed, and bake in a slow oven nearly an hour; when tender all through, peel them, put them into a deep dish, and brown slightly, basting with butter freely; this will take, perhaps, a quarter of an hour more; serve in a vegetable dish, and pour over the melted butter when you have sprinkled with pepper and salt. Mrs. Washington, The Unrivalled Cook-Book and Housekeeper’s Guide (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1886), p. 200.

Onion Custard (Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book 1872)    History

Skin and slice ten medium-sized white, silver onions; fry them in fresh butter; as soon as of a golden color, drain them from the butter; mince them very fine. Beat four eggs; stir to them slowly, stirring constantly, two tumblers of sweet milk; stir all to the onions; season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Pour in an earthen dish that will just hold it, and bake fifteen minutes. Mrs. A. P. Hill, Mrs. Hill’s New Cook Book (New York: Carleton, 1872), pp. 191-92.

Onion Soup 1 (Virginia Housewife 1838)    History

Chop up twelve large onions, boil them in three quarts of milk and water equally mixed, put in a bit of veal or fowl, and a piece of bacon with pepper and salt. When the onions are boiled to a pulp, thicken it with a large spoonful of butter mixed with one of flour. Take out the meat, and serve it up with toasted bread cut in small pieces in the soup. Mrs. Mary Randolph, The Virginia Housewife: or, Methodical Cook (Baltimore: Plaskitt, Fite & Co., 1838), p. 19.

Onion Soup 2 (Kentucky Housewife 1839)    History

Boil four or five pounds of fresh beef, veal or mutton, or a fat young fowl, with a small piece of bacon, having seasoned it well with salt and pepper. Remove the scum as it rises, and when the meat gets about half done, put in a dozen and a half of very small onions. Boil all together till done very tender, but be careful not to break the onions, as they look prettiest served whole. Pound a part of the meat to paste, season it highly with pepper, nutmeg, mace, and chopped parsley, and moisten it with a little wine; make it into small round balls, not larger than a cherry, and sprinkle them with dry flour. Put in enough butter rolled in flour to thicken the soup; add half a pint of cream and a grated nutmeg, and when it begins to simmer, drop in the balls, and serve it up. pp. 23-24.

Brown Onion Sauce—Piquant (Harder’s Practical Cookery 1885)     History

Chop six Red Onions finely, put them in a saucepan with a piece of butter and fry them lightly. Then add a wine-glassful of vinegar and let it reduce to one third. Then add one spoonful of mustard flour, mix it well, and then, while stirring, add in slowly three spoonfuls of veal gravy and four of Espagnole sauce. Let it boil slowly for twenty-five minutes, season with salt and pepper, rub it through a fine sieve, and keep it warm for use. p. 232.

Onion Vinegar (Harder’s Practical Cookery 1885)    History

Peel and slice finely ten large white fresh Onions, put them in an earthen jar and add a soup-spoonful of salt and one of sugar. Boil two qwuarts of wine vinegar and pour it over the Onions, while it is hot. Cover and set them away, and at the expiration of two weeks strain and filter the vinegar. Then pour it into bottles, adding a small spring of tarragon to each bottle. Cork the bottles tightly and keep them in a cool place. P. 237.

Pickle Onions (Tennessee Farmer 1837)    History

The small round silver button onions make a very nice pickle. Take off their top coats; have ready a stewpan, 3 parts filled with boiling water, into which put as many onions as will cover the top; as soon as they look clear, immediately take them up with a pu nched skimmer and lay them on a cloth three times folded, and cover them with another until you have ready as many as you wish; when they are quite dry, put them into jars, and cover t hem with hot Pickle, made by infusing an ounce of Horse-radish, some of All-spice, and same of Black Pepper, and same of Salt, in a quart of best vinegar, in a stone jar, when cold, bung them up tight. Tennessee Farmer 2, 10 (October 1837), 157.

Pickled Onions (Creole Cookery Book 1885)    History

Put the onions in salt and water strong enough to bear an egg; change the water every day; then make a strong brine, pour it on boiling hot for 3 days; then lay them on a sieve to drain; put them in the jar; fill it with good vinegar, add mace and horse radish; if you wish them white, put salt and oil over the top; if you prefer them yellow, add from 2 to 3 tablespoonfuls of turmeric with the vinegar; tie them up very close and they will keep any length of time for table use. Christian Women’s Exchange, The Creole Cookery Book (New Orleans: T. H. Thomason, 1885), p. 197.