Do you know your onions?
July 4, 2013 2:52 PM   Subscribe

What's up with onions? Why are they so mild these days?

My wife noticed it first. None of the onions we've bought this year, or indeed last year, has tasted anything like the strong yellow onions we're used to. We're in the UK. It's been a really long time since either of us has cut into an onion and felt our eyes water, even slightly. You just can't make a good cheese and onion sandwich without a strong onion.

Is it the weather? Are the growers using different strains? What's up with the onions in the shops?
posted by pipeski to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
First off, I'm reading this on my phone and thought your question was about "opinions" and thought it seemed totally reasonable and now I can't stop laughing.

Second, here in the US, I've felt like it has been the opposite and every single onion I've cut has left me crying and red eyed for an hour.

Do they look just the same? Was your spring unusually mild?
posted by dawkins_7 at 3:03 PM on July 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

They look the same. Round, brown papery skin. An onion's pretty much an onion, visually.

Last year was colder and wetter than usual, with more ice and snow than usual. This year we had a very cold spring.
posted by pipeski at 3:11 PM on July 4, 2013

Climate and variety and the time of harvest have a lot to do with it. Where are you buying your onions? My anecdotal sense is that greengrocers are more likely to have tearjerkers than supermarkets, although Sainsburys have "cooking onions" that are meant to be stronger.
posted by holgate at 3:13 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not related to the onions, but do either of you regularly wear contact lenses now? I find that I don't get teary chopping onions with contacts on, but when I wear my glasses my eyes water like crazy.
posted by wilky at 3:17 PM on July 4, 2013

They're not. Buy organic. How I cried - only yesterday.
posted by Namlit at 3:21 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Most varieties of commercial onions generally get milder in storage, as the pungent aromatics evaporate or break down. As more suppliers resort to storage solutions to maintain average prices and consistent supply from varying sources, fewer commercial onions come to market ready to make you cry when cut. Many people see this as an add-on feature, not a bug, but I suppose if you like and remember the pungent qualities of mature hard yellow onions fresh from garden soil, you could wish for tears again, for your sandwich making endeavors. Market accordingly.
posted by paulsc at 3:26 PM on July 4, 2013 [7 favorites]

I usually can't tell when I buy an onion, unless it's actually labeled a "sweet" onion or looks very fresh. I've been finding red onions, especially the wonderful, unaged ones from the stand up the block, to have a lot of the strong fumes and great cooking smells that are so appealing. Every white onion I've tried has a totally different kind of fire - strong bite and burn when eaten raw, but they're not as powerful in cooking.

Yellow/brown onions vary between the two extremes, mostly depending on when and where I buy them. I look for a hard and heavy onion with a nice thick, dark outer skin,, preferably with as much dry stalk and root tendrils attached as possible.

Namlit gives a good suggestion - if the onions you usually buy aren't cutting it, try organic. They're almost certain to come from a different farm with different soil, different growing practices, and may even be a different cultivar that you'll have better luck with. It's the simplest indicator, anyway.
posted by WasabiFlux at 3:27 PM on July 4, 2013

I think that in the northern hemisphere we're still mostly eating last year's storage onions, or onions shipped from long distances, so not the oniony onions of fall and winter. So it's possible they're particularly aged and demoralized.

I just cut up about two pounds for caramelized onions and for whatever it's worth, I didn't tear up but usually do. On the other hand, it's so humid I'd be unsurprised if all things on a molecular level floated up into the air and then immediately fell in despair.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:14 PM on July 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Further contradictory evidence: like dawkins_7 I have found onions to be really strong lately. (I'm in BC.) By strong I mean my husband who is not chopping needs to leave the kitchen.
posted by heybearica at 6:59 PM on July 4, 2013

Is it possible that the onions you;re getting now were grown in a different area than the ones you were used to? Bold onions depend on a good muck soil. That's why we grow the best ones here in New York.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:38 PM on July 4, 2013

Here in Texas, I've noticed the same thing you are seeing in your area, and noticed this trend starting a decade ago or more. At least here, this trend started with the popularity of Vidalia onions, and then the overwhelming popularity (huge, really, for an onion) of the 1015 onion. Have you guys had a similar trend of sweet/mild onions becoming popular? There are only so many types of onions a grocery store can sell -- here, it seems to be that about 5-6 different kinds is the max, so mostly they are mild, sweet ones now because they are so popular.
posted by Houstonian at 9:05 PM on July 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm in the UK and either I've been getting more sensitive to onions or the one's I've been buying have been getting stronger, not milder.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 1:44 AM on July 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've found that onions from Aldi make my eyes water much more than the ones I get from Sainsbury's or the Co-Op - apparently Aldi moves produce through the supply chain much quicker (and definitely goes off more quickly in my experience), so I'd say the storage theory above sounds reasonable to me.
posted by theseldomseenkid at 3:25 AM on July 5, 2013

Oh man, you need to try Lidl's organic onions. Jeez, those are like napalm to my eyes.

Morrison's onions and Lidl's cheap onions are both fairly mild - I'm guessing it's partially a storage thing. The weather last year and this year probably haven't helped the crop any, so maybe they're getting them from new locations?
posted by Katemonkey at 3:53 AM on July 5, 2013

Yeah I'm seeing a LOT of Vidalias in my store, so you have to be sure they're regular yellow onions you're getting, not sweet. (Florida here - and until recently, people used to buy *shares* in a Vidalia truckload that another person would then go up to claim in person.)
posted by toodleydoodley at 7:11 AM on July 5, 2013

I'm very frustrated about the flavorless onions. I'm careful not to buy onions labeled as "sweet," so I know it's not my error. The insipid yellow onions have no onion flavor AND no sweetness. It really pisses me off. I think the only way to tell would be to bring a paring knife to the market and cut one open to see if that lot is tear-inducing. I'm not going to be doing that.

When I do get a good onion, I go back to the same store the next day and stock up. Onions last a long time if they're kept in a cool, dark place. I'm sorry to say that's my only solution.
posted by wryly at 10:21 AM on July 5, 2013

For what it's worth, I've just chopped up a perfectly ordinary medium-sized brown onion from the Co-Op - conventionally grown, Grade II, New Zealand origin, best-before date on the string bag of end of May (it was in a cupboard) - and it made my eyes tear up so badly I had to stop half a dozen times.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 1:54 PM on July 6, 2013

Thanks for all the responses. I took Katemonkey's advice and picked up some Lidl organic onions, which were fantastic.

I think I just need to steer clear of the big bags of onions from Asda and Morrisons - both have been consistently bland. I'm reassured to know that overly mild onions aren't a universal thing.
posted by pipeski at 3:15 AM on July 11, 2013

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