Time moves on. Summer’s days are already noticeably shorter with later starts to the morning and earlier ends to the day. This subtle shift in length of day, and the angle of the sun in the sky, lets us know that many of the crops we planted earlier are now ready to be harvested.
Visit any of the great farmer’s markets in our area, and you’ll see some beautiful onions begging to be taken home. A previous “Garden Spot” outlined how you can successfully cultivate this versatile crop in your garden. Whether you’ve grown your own, or purchased them, onions can not only be used in a variety of dishes, but they can be stored in a variety of ways. Whatever form you use to preserve them, the goal is to have them handy and ready for their next great contribution to whatever meal you’re preparing.
Onions planted in very early spring, as starts (versus seeds or sets, which are small bulbs from last year’s growing season) are ready to harvest about this time — some earlier, some later. There is a direct correlation between the amount of leaves on the onion plant and the size of the bulb. The more “spikes,” the larger the bulb. For each leaf, there is a correlating ring in the onion. Because of this, there’s a balancing act of getting the onion planted early enough to get it going and allowing it to get as many leaves as possible before bulbing starts, but not too early when the ground is still too cold.
Another factor that is taken into account is the day length of the onion variety. There are typically three day lengths used in the United States; short, intermediate and long. This refers to the length of day that will trigger the bulb formation process in the onion plant. Once this day length occurs in the summer, the plant will stop forming new leaves and put its energy into forming the bulb. So, if you planted late and you have only three leaves, you are going to have a small, three-ringed onion. It will taste fine, it just didn’t reach its size potential. Short day onions are usually planted in the south, where they can be planted earlier. However, the length of day needed to trigger bulbing happens sooner as well. That’s why you usually won’t get great results with a short day onion around here.
Most gardeners use intermediate or long day onions in these parts. They can be planted a bit later, to allow the soil to sufficiently warm, and still put on enough leaves before the bulb-triggering day length is reached. With sufficient moisture and plenty of nitrogen, onions will produce many leaves resulting in large and flavorful bulbs. It’s been said that the perfect onion has 13 leaves and 13 rings.
The onion is ready for harvest when the tops yellow a bit and fall over. Once this happens, partially pull the onions out of the ground and cross the tops over each other to reduce sun scalding while they dry slightly. Or, if you prefer, you can pull them and place them on a table in a shady area where they won’t get wet if it rains or when you water your yardscape (moisture will cause rot). This initial process dries the exterior of the onion, including where the leaves are attached to the bulb. The goal is to get this “neck” to dry up and form a barrier into the interior of the onion which promotes extended storage time. Once the onion has dried a few days, cut the leaves off the bulb, leaving about three quarters of an inch of the neck in place above the bulb. Trim the roots off as well, then using gloved hands, rub the outside of the onions to get loose dirt and membranes off. Put your onions in a mesh bag or well ventilated crate, and place it in a dark cool place. Small onions should be used first, and any onion with necks that remain soft or pliable should be used immediately.
Besides mesh bags, there are other ways to store onions that take a bit more processing initially, but allow them to be more handily used when cooking. Freezer storage one another option. If you like your onions whole, you will need to blanch them (submerse them into boiling water) first until the centers are hot. Let them cool, place them on a cookie sheet in the freezer, and then bag them once frozen. To use, let defrost, and cut them up for your recipe. Onions stored this way can’t be thawed and eaten whole, but they are fine in soups, stews and casseroles, and the pieces can be left large enough to be recognizable. If you don’t like whole onions, you can chop the onion manually or by lightly processing in a food processor then bag and freeze them. They can quickly be used in a meatloaf, or breakfast potatoes, or wherever you typically use onions.
Onions are also stored efficiently and flavorfully using dehydration. Dried onions can be in the form of flakes or as powder. Blanching is not necessary to dry onions, although blanching will reduce the odor and potency of the onions during the drying process. You can easily avoid the smell in your house by dehydrating outside. To dry onions, wash and peel them. Halve and then cut them into fourths or sixths, whatever will fit in your food processor. Use a coarse shredder plate, and pulse the onions. Don’t let the processor run long or you will end up with pulp and a lot of juice. Then place them in either an oven or dehydrator set at about 150 degrees. Let them dry until they are pinkish brown and leathery. The color change is due to the onion sugars. It’s better to err on the side of drying a little too long in order to assure good storing characteristics. You can store them as you would any other dehydrated food, in airtight containers or vacuum bags. To create onion powder, you’ll need to chop the onions finer to begin with. Then dry them until they are very dry and crumbly. Let them cool, then grind them in your food processor or other milling device until they are the consistency you like. The powder can be stored in an airtight container, or in the freezer. If you did use a dehydrator and the onion scent remains in your unit, simply dehydrate a batch of shredded potatoes to remove it.
Here’s a great trick for you onion lovers. Chef Clay Campbell at Stockton Miners Cafe recently showed me how to greatly reduce the scent of onions during cutting. The secret is a sharp knife. That’s right. If your knife is kept really sharp, you will cleanly slice through the onion and minimize tearing the onion cells. This results in much less juice and the streams of tears that we are all too familiar with. When Clay told me this, while I was having breakfast at the restaurant, I have to admit I was skeptical. He reappeared in a few minutes with a sizable yellow onion, cutting board and sharp knife. Sitting at the table with us, he quickly processed the onion right beside us (watching a professional chef do knife work is a real hoot). There was almost no scent. He passed it around — still very little scent. Sure, if we lingered enough, we probably could have gotten a bit tearful. But I saved those tears for when my home fries were gone and I knew I’d have to wait until another day for another tasty helping.
Jay Cooper can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can visit his website at dirtfarmerjay.com for videos and articles on gardening, shop skills, culinary arts and landscaping.