Know Your Onions

It is an exciting time for those that grow their own onions because onion season is in mid-flow. It was probably a while ago that the onions themselves were picked, but they generally grow through a short period of drying before they are used in the kitchen or put into storage over the wintertime.

I’ve never grown them myself, but I feel that when it comes to cooking and eating onions, I really know my, er, onions. (Funny saying that; there is one theory that it was invented by etymologists working on the Oxford English Dictionary who coined it in great admiration of one of the best and most knowledgeable grammarians of the day, a certain C T Onions. How I wish it were true, but it seems that is actually American. Oh well.)

I love onions and they are one of the most loved vegetables, they are certainly the most used vegetable in the world – there is not a single cuisine I can think of that doesn’t use them. In Western cookery, onions make up one of the trinity of stock vegetables alongside carrots and celery; and there are countless recipes that begin with slicing or chopping an onion before browning in butter or oil. They are a universal seasoner of foods, a ubiquitous seasoning that is not always detectable, but if it were to be omitted you would miss them.

And I do, for I recently found out that I have an onion ‘intolerance’, or at least my alimentary canal does. Finding a replacement has been tricky, but I have recently adopted using the finely sliced green parts of a leek along with a clove of garlic. It is strange that I essentially turn myself inside out after eating a cheese and onion sandwich and yet I can happily tuck into the remainder of the onion family: garlic, leeks and chives and not suffer even the mildest discomfort. Anyway, you don’t want to know about all that – I sound like an old woman!

Allium, the Onions

There are around 500 species of plant that belong to the Genus Allium, and botanically speaking they are all members of the lily family, though only a score are important as foods worldwide, and even fewer that are important to the British, though the onion, garlic and leek were all eaten in Ancient Egypt and even appear in the Old Testament of The Bible.

Below is a lovely illustration from the wonderful book Food in England by Dorothy Hartley showing the ‘Most Common or Garden Onions’. Chives and leeks have been omitted as they are suitably different to be considered standalone vegetables/herbs. There are familiar and unfamiliar onions here, and some that have been omitted, like mild white onions. Two that I have never sampled are the Welsh Holtzers and the strange Egyptian, or tree, onion.

I am going to stick to the familiar brown onion that we all know and love in this post. At the foot of the above drawing it is mentioned that onions, bread and cheese ‘are spoken together as Field Fare in our earliest manuscripts’. These three food items would have been bagged up or kept in the pocket of a ploughman or other farm worker for much-needed sustenance throughout the long working day. The original ploughman’s lunch that dates to not too long after the first century when onions were first introduced to Britain by the Romans.

Two Onion Recipes

So many recipes use onions, but so few of them show them off as the star of the show and we forget that onions can be served as vegetables in their own right. Here are two recipes that I think do them justice.

Baked Onions, or Orbs of Joy

This is a very old recipe that has recently been given a second wind by Fergus Henderson the great ‘nose to tail’ chef at St John in London. Looking at his recipe and one written in 1954 by Dorothy Hartley, there is only one difference and that is the type of onion used – a stoic brown onion or a prettier red onion. Use whichever you grow or prefer. Serve with roast game, chicken, goose or beef, using the appropriate stock.



one good-sized onion per person

chicken, beef or vegetable stock

salt and pepper

Smear some healthy knobs of butter on the bottom of a deep ovenproof dish. Peel your onions, cut off the rooty part and sit them in the dish. Pour in enough hot stock almost to cover. Season the tops with salt and pepper. Bake uncovered in a moderate oven, around 160⁰C, until the onions are tender within and caramelised without. Test their doneness with a skewer. If you only have a little stock, cover the dish and only remove it toward the end of the cooking time so they can ‘brown becomingly’.

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Onion Marmalade

I imagined that onion marmalade had been around for ages but only seems to date back to the latter half of the last century. Who knew? This is a recipe of my own concoction and is a top-seller on my stall. There are plenty of dark sweet flavours as well as tart vinegar. I use cider or wine vinegar as well as Balsamic vinegar in mine. Feel free to alter the ratio of the two to your own liking. It makes about 1 litre (2 pints) of marmalade. Have it in a cheese sandwich, with bangers and mash, or with some nice potted chicken livers.


2 kg (4.5 lbs) onions, halved and thinly sliced

5 tbs olive oil

100 g (4 oz) granulated sugar

100 g (4oz) soft dark brown sugar

1 tbs chopped thyme leaves

4 bay leaves

1 ½ tsp salt and ½ tsp ground black pepper

250 ml (9 fl oz)  cider or wine vinegar (red or white)

50 ml (2 fl oz) balsamic vinegar

Heat the olive oil in a large pan. Turn up the heat and add the onion. Using a wooden spoon, coat the onions well in the oil. Add the sugars, thyme, salt and pepper, then turn heat down to medium and mix until the sugars have dissolve. Simmer uncovered for at least 50 minutes on a medium-low heat, until the onions have become deliciously brown and mushy. Take your time, be as slow as possible. If you don’t have 50 minutes or more to spare, wait for a time you do!

Pour in the vinegars and simmer for a further 30 minutes until the liquids have reduced to about one-quarter and are good and syrupy. Let the marmalade cool for 10 minutes then jar as normal.



Filed under Britain, cooking, food, history, Preserving

7 responses to “Know Your Onions

  1. This marmelade looks delicious. Don’t forget the most amazing flavor of all, hing, or asa foetida, supposedly the only oniony flavor certain religious folks from the Indian sub continent can have. It is completely addicitive and easy to add as it comes as a power. You could write all about it as I imagine it impacted the India side of British cookery! Now I’m about to serve a company dinner with your beet chutney and gentleman’s relish!


    • Ooh. I hope they go well!

      I love asafoetida, though it is not an Allium. I do know that it is antiflatulent, so maybe I should have some whenever I have to eat an onion!


  2. I’m sorry to hear about your onion intolerance – it was one of the great sorrows of my mother’s life that onions took their revenge whenever she indulged. I really like the idea of thyme as an amendment to onion marmalade. I’d always assumed it was a late twentieth century revival of an old dish – I wonder what genius came up with it? do let us know if you ever find out.
    On baked onions – we prefer to use beef dripping rather than butter, and then cover with beef stock. And we buy the big sweet Spanish onions to make it, rather than using the ones out of the garden. If we do have to use the garden ones we blanch them first and add a pinch of sugar to the stock.
    And on tree onions – they make great pickled onions. I’ve been selecting for size for some years now and have them up to the size of shallots. They produce a really useful weight of onion and onion greens per square foot so long as you keep the soil in good condition and seem immune to pests and diseases. As are the Welsh onions. I no longer bother to grow spring onions but use those instead.
    Always good to see an illustration from my favourite cookery book. And mention of the great Fergus Henderson reminds me that when I was given pigs trotters this week I made a small batch of his Trotter Gear, substituting white wine for madeira because that was what I had and just added pearl barley to the chopped trotters and liquid – it made the most amazing risotto and didn’t need stirring. Offal haters came back for seconds


    • Thanks for the comments Kathryn.
      I had the opportunity to meet Fergus Henderson at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival and I got to pick up a copy of the Complete Nose to Tail which I think will be offically out in a week or so. I’ve been eyeing up the trotter gear, so i think you have inspired me to make some. Thanks for that!
      I have just got myself an allotment so I’ll try some tree onions in the new year. That’s if I can gan get those beds sorted out in time…


  3. Pingback: How to eat honey | Exploring Eating

  4. Love your article. I can’t imagine a world without onions! My personal favorite are winter onions (What you call tree onions) For me, they’re the most versatile. I have a large patch of them that is about 5 years old. Most now, are the size of large shallots. I get the tender greens from the smaller ones, use the large ones for cooking and canning, and when the patch gets too crowded, I pick and pickle about a third of the patch. I love being able to go out in the coldest months and dig up fresh onions. I’ve sent sets to friends all over the US and they do well in all different climates.


    • Thanks for the tips, Sharon – I have planted some tree onions this very year, so looking forward to a good healthy patch of them in a few years’ time!


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