Getting to know the onion clan

Margaret Prouse
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

The onion clan, the genus Allium, is one of the big extended families in the world of edible plants.

The many onion cousins — yellow cooking onions, red onions, white onions, Spanish onions, leeks, scallions or green onions or spring onions, shallots — are widely used, both raw and cooked. Every cuisine that I can think of employs some form of onions to add flavour, texture and sometimes colour to meals.

Red onions are often used in salads or sliced on burger patties, at least in part because the colour is attractive. When they are cooked, it is usually lightly, maybe on a grill or in a sauté pan, to preserve as much of the red colour as possible.

Sweet-tasting mild Spanish onions are often used raw as well.

The white onion is another of the large onions that is sometimes available in the produce section next to red onions and Spanish onions. The skin and flesh are white, and it has a relatively mild onion flavour. It’s a favourite in Mexican cooking.

Shallots grow in a formation similar to that of garlic, with heads comprised of separate cloves, each covered in a thin skin. They have a dry papery outer skin, which can be pale brown or gray or rose pink in colour, and a moist interior, similar to an onion. The mild oniony flavour is good in Oysters Rockefeller, because it does not overpower the delicate oyster flavour.

The terms scallion, green onion, and spring onion are usually used interchangeably, to describe young onions with undeveloped bulbs and long green leaves. Most often, they are just  immature common onions, harvested before the bulbs fill out, but there are actually onions called scallions that do not develop a rounded bulb, even at maturity.

Green onions are served raw or cooked, in salads and soups, and as garnishes and crudités.

Leeks look like thick overgrown green onions with flat green leaves. They are mild in flavour, and frequently used in soups, such as the famous Cock-a-Leekie, and stocks.

French onion soup is a decadent winter-day treat made with simple ingredients. It’s a good use for the end of a bottle of red wine.

This recipe is quite salty, especially if you make it with stock that contains salt, and top it with cheese.

Use a light hand when adding salt; you probably won’t need the entire 5 mL suggested in the recipe.


French Onion Soup

Adapted from Reiss, Pam: “Soup, A Kosher Collection,” Whitecap Books, Vancouver, 2004.


4 medium yellow onions (1 kg/2 lb), peeled, halved, and sliced into 5 mm/ 1/4-inch rings

25 mL (2 tbsp) olive oil

10 mL (2 tsp) granulated sugar

75 mL (1/3 cup) dry red wine

1.5 L (6 cups) stock

1 bay leaf

2 mL (1/2 tsp) black pepper

5 mL (1 tsp) salt (optional. Taste before adding!)

15 mL (1 tbsp) soy sauce


Place onions, olive oil and granulated sugar in a heavy soup pot and stir well to coat. Cover the pot and cook 15 minutes on medium-high, stirring frequently.

Take the lid off the pot, turn the heat up to high and cook another 15 minutes, stirring frequently.

The onions will soften and get a lot of brown colour on them. Adjust the heat so that they brown without burning.

Add the wine and simmer 2 -3 minutes, scraping all the bits of onion from the bottom of the pot, and allowing the wine to reduce slightly.

Add stock, bay leaf, black pepper, optional salt and soy sauce. Cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow to simmer for 40 minutes on low.

Eat this soup as it is, or add croutons and a grating of Parmesan cheese, or float a slice of French bread in each bowl, top with a slice of Gruyere cheese, and broil to melt the cheese before serving.

There are lots of ways to use these caramelized onions.

They’re best if you don’t rush them, so be patient when cooking them.


Caramelized Onions

From Chavich, Cinda: “The Girl Can’t Cook: 275 Fabulous No-Fail Recipes a Girl Can’t be Without,” Whitecap Books, Vancouver, 2004.


3 large onions, peeled and thinly sliced (white, red and/or yellow)

50 mL (1/4 cup) virgin olive oil

5 mL (1 tsp) sugar

5 mL (1 tsp) balsamic vinegar


Heat the oil in a sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add the onions and stir to coat with the oil. Cover the pan and sweat the onions for 5 minutes.

Remove the cover and cook over medium-low heat until the onions begin to turn golden — if they are browning or burning, the heat is too high. Continue to cook on fairly low heat until the onions are very soft and jammy, with a nice colour.

Stir the sugar and vinegar together and add to the pan, cooking until the liquid is gone. Pile into a bowl and serve warm with bread or put them in a container and refrigerate until you’re ready to use them.

Serve on slices of baguette, on flat bread, scattered over pizzas, or folded into omelets; add to simply dressed pastas with black olives and cherry tomatoes; pile onto burgers and grilled sausage sandwiches; or chop them up for dips and frittatas.


Margaret Prouse, a home economist, can be reached by writing her at RR#2, North Wiltshire, P.E.I., C0A 1Y0, or by email at


Geographic location: Vancouver, North Wiltshire

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page