Sprouting Onions

When the inevitable happens and your storage onions sprout

Onions are cheap in the grocery store. And according to the Environmental Working Group’s annual list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15, they have very little pesticide residue, even when you don’t buy organic.

So why do I love growing my own onions? It’s hard to say exactly. But they are such a staple. They are used as the base in about a gazillion recipes, either as Mirepoix (2 part onion, 1 part celery, 1 part carrot) or the Holy Trinity in Cajun/Creole cooking (equal parts onions, celery and green bell pepper), or Sofrito in Spanish heritage cooking (onions, garlic, and…well, it depends on the region, but often tomato and peppers). Having a larder of winter storage onions at the end of the harvest season just makes me feel like no matter what the world throws at me, at least I can feed myself well, and inexpensively, if I have onions to start with.

I start my onions from seed during the second week of March, and plant them out in early May. I’ve tried buying onion plants and onion sets from nurseries, but I always end up with a lot that send up seed stalks (because they are a biannual, and think they have already been through their first season by the time you buy them) or they end up bilobed, which don’t store nearly as well. Plus, you have way more choices on variety if you start from seed. I don’t grow Walla Walla Sweets, because 1) LOTS of local folks are doing it very very well already and 2) Walla Walla Sweets are not a storage onion. They are a summer crop that is long gone by late August or so.

I grow a lot of different kinds of heirloom onions for fall farmers markets and try to store 50 red and 50 yellow onions for our own use every year. But come May, no matter how well they store, they start to sprout. Our local sweet onions aren’t quite available yet. What to do with 10 to 20 onions with green sprouts sticking out of the top?

Cutting an Onion

© John Hartman 2003. Step 3 is completely unnecessary because, hello, the onion already has natural layers in that direction. For step 4, don’t cut all the way through the root end. Leaving it intact helps hold all the slippery layers together as you dice, so they don’t slide all over the board.

Diced onions on a sheet pan

Diced red and yellow onions on a sheet pan, ready to go in the freezer. No blanching necessary.

One: Peel, split in half through the root (NOT the equator), remove as much of the sprouting leaves as you can, dice, and freeze. I like to freeze on half sheet pans and then throw them into a zip top freezer bag so they don’t freeze in one large block. This way, when I need a handful for eggs or stews or whatever, I can just reach into the bag and grab what I need. If the recipe calls for one small onion, diced, that’s about 1/2 cup.

Mason jar of dried diced onions

Two dehydrator trays of diced onions fits into a pint mason jar…if you squish them a bit

Two: Peel, split in half through the root, remove as much of the sprouting leaves as you can, dice, and throw into the dehydrator at 145 degrees for 4 to 8 hours. Then store in mason jars. I’ll be honest, I don’t use a lot of dried onions, though I occasionally wiz some up in a spice grinder for onion powder as needed. But having them as a backup (they store pretty much forever) means, again, that I can always feed myself a lovely soup. They are great mixed with other dried veg and bouillon cubes and some dried pasta or instant rice or beans for a hardy and tasty backpack/camping meal.

Bowl of French Onion Soup

French Onion Soup!

Three: Peel, split in half through the root, remove as much of the sprouting leaves as you can, slice into long strips and make French Onion Soup!

Back in my 20’s, I lived in Boulder Colorado for a few years. I was broke (SOOO broke). But a local restaurant downtown on Pearl Street used to have a great French Onion Soup, and when I wanted to eat out but couldn’t afford much, this soup really hit the spot. I was still working my way out of my picky eater phase, and was amazed at how good onion soup could be when I could barely bring myself to eat an onion at home, even when cooked.

This recipe is adapted from one that ran in Cooks Illustrated in January 1999. They have since published several others but I’ve never tried them. This one was great, and I never felt the need to revisit the recipe. Serious Eats did a whole piece on the best way to make onion soup as well.

The key here, and I can’t emphasize this enough, is to actually caramelize the onions, because that is what creates a deeply satisfying rich broth that is so good that you don’t just pick around it to get to the cheese and bread! And to do that well, you need about 45 minutes. The rest of the recipe comes together pretty quickly once that is done. But don’t rush the caramelization step, and be careful to not take it too far or you will drift into bitter land.

French Onion Soup
Serves 6

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 5 medium onions of your choice (about 3 pounds), sliced thin. (Lots of debate on which is best, red, white, yellow – I don’t worry about it and just use what I have on hand – or use a mix).
  • ½ tsp table salt
  • 6 cups low-sodium chicken broth (I use Better than Bouillon)
  • 1 ¾ cups low-sodium beef broth (I use Better than Bouillon)
  • ¼ cup dry red wine (or white – or sherry – or apple juice if you don’t do alcohol)
  • 2 sprigs fresh parsley leaves (about 1 tbsp fresh chopped or 1 tsp dried – but fresh is best)
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme (or 1/2 tsp dried)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • ¼ to ½ tsp ground black pepper
  • Baguette, sliced to fit the bowls you will be using, about 1″ thick
  • Shredded Gruyere or Swiss cheese and perhaps a handful of Asiago or some other stronger cheese with a bit of funk.

Melt butter in large soup kettle or Dutch oven over medium-high heat; add sliced onions and salt and stir to coat onions thoroughly with butter. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are reduced and syrupy and the bottom of the pot is coated with a lovely brown crust, about 45 minutes. Be careful not to burn the onions or the bottom of the pot. Pay special attention during that last 5 to 10 minutes, when you no longer see any moisture bubbling up around your pile of onions and stop before things start to get burnt and bitter. You want a nice medium brown, not mahogany.

Stir in the chicken and beef broths, wine or sherry, parsley, thyme, and bay leaf, scraping pot bottom with wooden spoon to loosen browned bits, and bring to a simmer. Why chicken stock instead of all beef stock? Because beef stock from the store is notoriously bad. If you make your own and have it on hand, by all means, use it instead.

Simmer on low with the lid off to blend and concentrate flavors, for about 20 minutes. Then fish out and discard herbs if you used whole sprigs. Stir in balsamic vinegar (trust me on this, you want that hit of acid to balance the sweet and savory) and adjust seasonings with salt and pepper to taste.

Take your sliced bread and either throw it into a toaster oven and get it good and crispy, or if feeding a crowd, line the bread up on a sheet pan and bake at 350 for 15 minutes, flipping once, until lightly browned. You can get all fancy and butter/oil them first, or not. Up to you. Basically you are aiming for a giant crouton.

Onion Soup with toppings

Some assembly required. I went all out on the cheese here, but you can just buy inexpensive Swiss as well.

Ladle hot soup into heat proof bowls. Top with a crouton. Then top with a handful of shredded cheese. Place under broiler and heat JUST until the cheese is melted and starts to brown slightly. Watch carefully so you don’t burn them. Serve piping hot and try not to swoon at how these few simple ingredients come together in such a soul satisfying way.

© Miles Away Farm 2018, where the Walla Walla Sweets aren’t quite ready yet, but we’re never out of onions, and the ones in the greenhouse are ALMOST ready to put in the ground.