With onions, the first thing to come to most people’s minds are those yellow globes nearly everyone has in the kitchen. But the Allium family also includes shallots, welsh onions or scallions, leeks, garlic, potato onions and topsetting or tree onions. There’s an old, old joke about the stereotypical Jewish grandmother who was teaching her granddaughter to bake a cake. Grandma’s first instruction was, “First slice up and cook an onion.” When the granddaughter wanted to know why, Grandma said, “So the house should smell good.”
Onions do smell good when cooking, even if they can irritate the eyes when you cut them up. Cutting releases compounds that combine in a gas which causes tears. Some onions are more pungent than others – sweet onions are usually less irritating to the eyes. You can try slicing them under water, breathe through your mouth or put a fan in the kitchen. The root end has more of those compounds, so you could try cutting it last or just tuck it in the freezer for soup stock. It’s those same compounds, however, that contain immune system boosters, so you might be better off eating an onion a day than an apple a day.
Onions concentrate nutrients near the outside. Always use those papery outer skins in soup stock to get maximum nutritional benefits. When I peel an onion, I slice off the top and root end – these go to the chickens. Then I peel the papery outer layer and any drier inner layers. These go in a ziplock bag in the freezer. The next time I make a soup broth, all the onion skins go straight into the broth from the freezer; I strain them out when the broth is finished.
When you’re growing bulbing onions, you have to consider day length during the summer. Different varieties will begin to bulb according to whether they are short-day, intermediate, long-day or day-length neutral onions. Short-day onions do best in the south and long-day onions do best in the north. Day-length-neutral or intermediate onions can be grown pretty much anywhere. As onions bulb, by the way, they push out of the ground; that’s normal, so don’t cover them up with more soil. More water generally means sweeter onions, but don’t get carried away or they may rot. Better to mulch well than to overwater. Onions should dry for a while after they’re harvested to prevent rot. Always handle onions gently when harvesting, as they may rot if bruised. In case you haven’t guessed by now, onions tend to be susceptible to rot.
You can grow onions from seeds or sets – onions that have been grown in very crowded conditions and look like they belong in a Barbie doll kitchen. Onions grown from seed usually keep better, but they do take a lot longer to grow to maturity. If you grow potato (multiplier) onions, you can just leave a few in the ground and they’ll increase the way any bulbing plant will. Topsetting onions bend over at the top and root where they touch the ground, starting new plants. Treat shallots and leeks as you do other types of onions.
In my garden, onions do better if fall-planted (seeds or sets) and allowed to overwinter. Allium seed doesn’t usually last more than a year, so I like to fall plant, let some go to seed and plant that seed the next fall. Since onions are biennial, if you plant in spring, you may not get a good seed crop. It’s hard to plant them in spring and keep them growing through the summer, as they want to form bulbs and dry up. However, if you leave some of those bulbs in the ground through the winter, they will often develop several smaller bulbs (think daffodils) and then go to seed the next spring. You can divide and replant the smaller bulbs instead of sets, but results vary; you’ll get a more uniform crop from seeds. Welsh onions (scallions) are perennial and don’t form bulbs, but multiply in the same way iris and daffodils do.
Garlic comes in two forms: hardneck and softneck. These descriptive terms refer to the stalk (or lack of it). A hardneck garlic literally has a thick hard stalk in the center that is rigid at maturity. Softneck stalks aren’t really stalks at all but a compact layer of leaves that remains flexible and lends itself to braiding. Hardnecks are the type preferred by many gourmet cooks as they have more complex flavors and because they often have more “bite.” They also tend to form several large cloves, while softneck has more but smaller cloves. The softneck garlics tend to appeal to a wider range of diners because they are milder.
Some hardneck varieties are striped or tinged in red or purple – the various types include purple striped, marble purple striped, Asiatic, glazed purple striped, Creole, Middle Eastern, turban, rocambole and porcelain. Softnecks are grouped into blanco/Paicenza, California early and late, Corsican red, Inchelium red, silver rose, silver white and French red varieties. Purple striped and rocambole types are the hardiest and best for those in really cold climates, while porcelain and softneck varieties do better in hot areas. Hardneck varieties form a scape – the early developmental stage of the hard neck, which will turn into a flower stalk. These are edible and typically harvested for pesto or chopped and frozen for later use.
Garlic can be spring or fall-planted. Fall-planted garlic does store better, but it also tends to dry out in storage and the flavors often change. I like to plant some in both seasons. That way I have nice, juicy garlic pretty much year round.
Storing Onions and Garlic
Whole dry onions store best in pantyhose. Drop an onion into the toe, tie a knot above it, drop another onion in, etc. Hang from a beam in a relatively warm (you don’t want them to freeze, but they don’t have to be kept toasty), dry place. When you want an onion, cut a hole in the bottom of the pantyhose. After that, untie the knot for the next one. You can either save the pantyhose for a similar procedure next year or cut into ties for staking tomatoes in the garden.
Garlic cloves should be stored whole, kept in the dark and as dry as possible. A garlic braid is an excellent and picturesque way to store garlic. However, you can’t braid hardneck garlic the way you can softneck; I store mine in single-layer trays. Softneck garlic will usually store at least six months and possibly up to a year, while hardnecks are only good for three to six months. You can also peel cloves and store them in oil. If you do, figure two to three weeks in the fridge or about four months in the freezer. You can also store minced garlic in the freezer for up to six months. And garlic can be fermented – nice for a change of taste. Fermenting mellows the typical garlic bite, just as it does with onions. Given that you’re typically going to use only a few cloves, I don’t think it’s worth the bother to do anything but store it as dry whole bulbs.