Why We Eat Onions and Other Alliums

Onion BowlThe members of the Allium family– onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, shallots, chives– are kitchen staples and culinary workhorses; they are readily-available, economical ingredients to have stocked in your kitchen at all times. Alliums are nutrient-dense,  filled with phytonutrients and antioxidants. I eat a roasted onion every day in salads or mixed with other roasted vegetables like fennel or sweet peppers. They add a sensuous depth of flavor to most any dish. Include lots of onions, garlic, and leeks in your bone broth and don’t strain them out.

Onions — Allium cepa
Yellow, White, Red Onions LongSautéing or roasting onions does not diminish the nutritional content, it only mellows the heat and increases the sweetness. The onion’s skin has the highest concentration of bionutrients including quercetin which is why I save onion skins from roasting throughout the week (in the refrigerator) and add them to my bone broth.

Pungent onions are the most nutritious, and red and yellow onions are good choices. They should be purchased firm and last about a month in a cool dark spot. In contrast, flat wide red onions are sweet slicing onions and are much less pungent with a shorter shelf life. Store those in the refrigerator on a shelf– the crisper drawer is too moist.

When slicing a pungent onion first cut lengthwise from stem to root and place the open sliced sides down on the cutting board. Use a sharp knife to avoid pressing down on the onion, and leave the root in tact (this is where the greatest concentration of eye-stinging compounds are located). Next, trim the stem end and peel back the skin. Slice into sections or add horizontal cuts to form a dice. Having the root end intact helps hold the onion together for ease of slicing and reduces the eye sting. The last cut will remove the root end.

Red Onion Triptik Edited

Garlic — Allium sativum

Garlic GarlicThere are two types of garlic, softneck (the common supermarket variety is California Silverskin with 6-18 cloves) and hardneck (fewer cloves that grow in a single circle around a woody stem). Elephant garlic,  sometimes available in supermarkets or farmers’ markets,  is actually a wild leek.
Garlic has not been bred for sweetness like many onions so it retains most of its original nutrients. The health benefits of garlic come from allicin, which is formed when alliin and alliinase compounds contained in the garlic come in contact with one another when garlic is pressed chopped or chewed. Because heating interferes with this process, it is best to chop or press and let the garlic rest for 10 minutes before cooking. The “press and rest” rule is according to Jo Robinson in “Eating on the Wild Side.”

Store garlic in a dark space with good air circulation or on a shelf in the refrigerator (not the crisper). Fresh garlic has more nutrients and flavor than other prepared forms with the exception of freeze dried garlic. Storing garlic actually increases its pungency and allicin content.

Leeks — Allium porrum

LeeksLeeks have mild onion taste with most of the nutrients contained in the green stems. The most common types are summer leeks and overwintering leeks that are harvested in spring. Leeks are a great addition to stocks, bone broth, or soups and are delicious saluted.

When sautéing, cut the root end and the tops of leaves down about three inches. Then cut the long sections into quarters and run under water to rinse out dirt. The green stems will take longer to cook so start those ahead then add the white portion if you want uniform texture. For soups and stocks, I just give the entire leek a rinse and remove the tips and roots and slice into rounds.

Leek soup is a springtime favorite and I make mine with sautéed leeks in homemade chicken stock, a few fresh fresh peas and diced Granny Smith apple pieces. With an immersion blender or food processor, I combine the ingredients to a desired consistency and garnish with fresh herbs, and a touch of cream.

Shallots– Allium cepa vary. aggregratum

tQAD Shallots
Shallots with a pretty red onion for company.


Unlike the silverskin garlic, the shallot’s cloves are covered with beautiful tea or wine -stained looking skins;  their flavor adds more brightness than an onion and are delicious in sauces, soups, or egg dishes. Sauteeing in olive oil is a typical cooking method.

Although they are more expensive than onions, they contain six times the phytonutrients (by weight) of some varieties and are essential in many French recipes.

 Scallionsallium fistulosum

Green onions–scallions– and chives

Although scallions are often called green onions they are not miniature onions, and should be distinguished from chives (onion chives) which are bulbless. The green stems are the most nutritious part and contain over 100 times more phytonutrients than the common white onion. Scallions make a great substitute for onions or cut on the diagonal and use as a  beautiful and flavorful topping to salsas, chili, soups and egg dishes– and they are a staple in Asian stir-fries.  Be sure to use them shortly after purchase– they will not last as long as regular onions.

Onion Chives–allium schoenoporasm

The long thin tubular leaves that taste like a lightly-flavored onion are often snipped and used as garnishes.  They are bulbless and last only a few days.  Chives can be purchased in plastic herb containers at grocery stores like Trader Joe’s for under $2.00.

The scientific references and facts contained in this section, although widely available, were acquired from investigative reporter and NYT best-selling author Jo Robinson’s practical and easily understood recent book, Eating On the Wild Side.

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