It is unclear whether the onion comes from Central Asia or Palestine, as its wild ancestor has never been discovered. Nevertheless, we do know that it was cultivated thousands of years before our time. It is mentioned in Egyptian texts and in the Bible. Greeks and Romans cultivated various varieties, the latter in gardens called caepina.

In French, it was called caepa (the root of the French words cive, ciboulette and ciboule) until the 11th century. The word ognon came from the Latin unio. In the 14th century, an i was added to make oignon, the French word for onion.

It became extremely popular in Europe during the Middle Ages and was a staple food, especially in the northern countries.

The onion was taken to the New World by Christopher Columbus, first to the West Indies, in the 15th century. It then spread to northern U.S.A. and Canada in the 17th century, cultivated by both the settlers and Native Americans.

Nowadays, onions are cultivated in all temperate regions of the world and particularly China, India, United States, Russia, and Turkey. 

Dry onions

Intact, shiny skins, with no signs of mold or sprouts. Very firm bulb: when it is soft the onion has begun to rot.

Fresh onions

No traces of mold or sprouts. When they are sold in a bunch, the stems should be bright green and unblemished.

Fresh or dried: sold loose.

Frozen: trimmed, chopped, blanched, and sometimes pre-fried or left whole if small. Frequently from China.

Dehydrated, cut into strips or cubes, flaked, in granular or powder form, from France, Africa (fair trade), or China.

Pickled in vinegar (pickling onions).

Onions are eaten both raw and cooked, after being washed and peeled.

Sweet, white, red, and spring onions are used raw in salads and on hamburgers.

Yellow onion has multiple uses as a flavouring and aromatic base for braised meats and other casseroles, soups, gravy, and marinades, etc.

Onions can be stuffed, fried in rings, and chopped to make an oignonade (an onion-based stew). They are used to make Soubise sauce. Small or grelot onions can be cooked down in butter to make confit. White onions work well with other vegetables, and are delicious prepared à la grecque.

In France, onion is the basis of many classic dishes, such as the pissaladière (onion pizza-like tart from the south of France), onion soup, Alsatian onion tart, etc.

Every country has one or more onion-based specialties. In India, piaz ka chatniis an onion chutney. Ecuadorians and Mexicans eat cebollas en escabeche (pickled red onions with lime). In Spain, calçotadas, onions cooked over coals, is a very popular dish. In Italy, Venetian-style calves' liver is made of calves' liver and sweet onions in equal proportions and Baccala with onions is a plate of cod and onions traditionally served at Christmas. In the U.S., onion rings, fried circles of onion, are a popular side dish. 

Dry onions: in a cool, dry, and well ventilated place for 2–3 months, without crowding them too much so as not to accelerate their aging. They should be stored far away from potatoes, as they soak up their moisture, which can make them rot and sprout.

Fresh onions: a few days in the refrigerator. They spoil very quickly.

Bunch of onions, scallions: wrapped in damp paper, a few days in the refrigerator. 

The onion is a natural health food. Since time immemorial it has been considered as both food and medicine.

It contains vitamins and minerals: it is one of the best sources of selenium (a significant antioxidant in the fight against aging, among others things) in our diet.

The onion has a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system. It inhibits (especially when fresh) platelet aggregation, resulting in a lower risk of clots. It has a hypoglycemic effect due to its sulfur compounds (50 mg per 100 g) and its large quantity of diphenylamine.

Finally, onions fight microbial growth, and so act as an antibacterial agent. This is why onions have always been a key ingredient in marinades.

Raw onions can be difficult to digest because of the high level of sulfur compounds. However, cooked onions are rather easy to digest. Cooking softens the fibers into a mucilaginous compound, which has a laxative effect.

Hundreds of onion varieties exist worldwide. They are classified according to the color, size, and shape of the bulbs.

  • White onions

. Small: produced from March through September throughout France. They are sometimes sold in bunches with their stems. The French varieties include: Blanc précoce de Barletta, Blanc de Vaugirard, and Merveille de Pompéi.  

Italy produces the Naples onion and the Cipollotto Nocerino, which is protected by a PDO.

The Calçot de Valls, produced in Spain, is protected by a PGI: it has a very small bulb and a long stem (15–25 cm). It is harvested from March through April.

The scallion (also called a spring onion) has a very small bulb and a very long stem. Grown throughout the Mediterranean region and Asia, it is harvested in spring and summer.

. Large: April through August.

Different varieties: Blanc de Paris, Blanc extra hâtif de Malakoff, Blanc très hâtif de la reine, Oignon blanc de Lezignac.

They are grown throughout France and especially in the southeast.

  • Yellow onions

The most common. They are sold throughout the year. Storage, or strong, onions have been stored between -3 and 0°C. They are trimmed and dry. In France, a distinction is made between the following types of onion:

. Round, flattened bulb: those grown in Burgundy are sold from July through October; Anjou produces them from September through April

. Round, copper-colored bulb: from the center of France and from Italy (September–April)

. Round, pale-yellow bulb: produced in Poland and the Netherlands (September­–June)  

. Elongated oval bulb: from Poitou and Anjou (September–April)

. Large, round, light-yellow bulb: produced in Spain (August–April)  

. Round, flat, golden-yellow bulb: also grown in Spain (September–April).

. Cévennes sweet onions: grown south of the Cévennes, this type of onion is protected by a PDO.

. The Ailsa Craig is particularly large. It is also grown in the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, like the Kelsae. The Walla Walla, a sweet onion, is grown in Washington State.

There are also small yellow grelot onions, sometimes called carambola in France. Sold dry, they mostly come from Egypt.

  • Red onions

These are rarer, but there are nonetheless several different varieties, some round and some flatter, with bulbs in varying shades of red: rouge gros de Brunswick, rouge gros plat d'Italie, echalions (banana shallots).

The majority of red onions are produced in Italy (the Cipolla Rossa di Yropea Calabria has PDO status, while the red onion from Tropea benefits from an IGP), Spain, and south-eastern France.

The Rosé de Roscoff, which is pinky red, comes from Brittany and has AOC (controlled designation of origin) status.

They appear in European markets in June. 

Recipes

Premium subscription

Gain unlimited access to 1,000 recipes from the greatest chefs
starting from just 1$

Discover top chefs recipes, with step-by-step illustrations and videos

Learn tips and tricks from the greatest chefs

Master techniques at home with interactive videos

Cancel anytime