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Bite-y Onions--When Sweet Onions Are Not

I hope this isn't my second post on this topic. For the past two years, I've noticed that onions touted as being sweet in my area (New England), aren't. I bought a couple of red onions (Sweet for Salads! the sign said), and they had an unpleasantly bitter/bite-y aftertaste...hard to describe. The same has happened when I've purchased even Vidalia onions, which I remember as being super sweet and mild to the point where I'd munch on chunks as if they were apple slices when I was a kid. What's up with this? Weather conditions? Is my palate changing? Has anyone else experience this?

Edited to add, I tried a quick pickling of the second red onion to mellow/change the flavor. I failed. Apart from a saute, is there anything I can do to help un-bitter an onion?

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  1. A cold water rinse of chopped onions, especially if they are to be used raw.

    1 Reply
    1. re: foodeye

      Thank you---I've never heard this tip before. Maybe in the context of "if they make you cry". I will try this next time!

    2. Pickling with vinegar won't help. Salting the sliced or chopped onions, then covering them with cold water and soaking them for fifteen minutes before rinsing should help a bit more than just a simple rinse.

      PS: About red onions; I think they meant "good for salads" because red onions are never actually going to be sweet & mild in the way that Vidalias are. Reds have quite a bite to begin with and reds in particular tend to turn sour rather quickly once they've been cut. More so than most other onions.

      As to the change in Vidalias themselves, true Vidalia onions come only from one small & specific area and the Southeast has been drier than usual for several years. It's not hard to imagine that this could lead to a stronger flavored onion. There are other varieties of "sweet" onions from elsewhere, but the drought conditions seem also to have hit most of the regions that are known for their onion country... We're all hoping for better rains this year, for the sake our farmers and our ranchers. And our food.

      4 Replies
      1. re: eclecticsynergy

        I disagree that red onions are never sweet and mild. The ones I get in restaurants (e.g. Panera) *are*. I have the same complaint about supermarket red onions as the OP.
        I asked a greengrocer in a produce market about this. He said not to buy reds for salad unless they are labeled as sweet, and that sweeter ones are squat, flattened at the stem and root ends. That seems to be good advice though I rarely see them that shape.

        1. re: greygarious

          I'm unfamiliar with any sweet red onions; they don't seem to sell 'em around here. I'll keep am eye out for something like that to be showing up though- Albany seems to run about five years behind the curve in terms of food trends and newer ingredients. The only red onions I've known have been the rather strong ones we used to call Spanish onions.

          Meanwhile, I'll go have salad and some soup at Panera & have a taste. Thanks, GG.

          1. re: eclecticsynergy

            I've had sweet and tasty red onions (thinly sliced) a few times--very rarely, and served at restaurants. I generally taste an onion sliver in any salad I order, and more than 9 times out of 10, they are sharp and yucky (and are put to the side). But once in a great while the onions are sweet and tasty. I wish they all were of the sweet and mellow variety!

        2. re: eclecticsynergy

          Salting and soaking is a Mediterranean trick I got from a book with Greek and Cypriot dishes in it. Made me recall that when my Mom was in Italy, and wanted to reciprocate a lunch my sister's neighbors had invited us to, she made fried chicken and potato salad. The latter, made from our family recipe, has chopped raw onion in it. The neighbors loved the chicken, but obviously found the potato salad inedible, though they were very polite about it. Had Mom known about salting and soaking the salad would probably have been acceptable.

        3. It might be the condition in which the onions were/are stored. I have all but given up on buying any onions (and garlic, for that matter) from my local grocery store because they are invariably sharp-tasting, smelly, and go bad far too soon. I suspect they store all the onions and garlic in a refrigerated storeroom, before being stocked on the retail shelf, which causes them to deteriorate too fast.

          4 Replies
          1. re: janniecooks

            Good point, jannie. I hadn't thought enough about that aspect to put two and two together, but for some time now I've been buying my onions, garlic, leeks and shallots at the local Asian market, where it's unlikely they've been chilled unnecessarily.

            I'd been figuring the quality difference was due to smaller stock & faster turnover, and hadn't even considered refrigeration as a factor. Thanks for pointing that out.

            I'm going to start getting my tomatoes there too, until locally grown ones begin showing up at the nearby CoOp. .

            1. re: eclecticsynergy

              Thank you Jannie and eclecticsynergy.

              That's a good point about storage. I've had that issue with bananas (unrelatedly) that have been exposed to freezing conditions before going on shelf at the store.

              I'll try salting and soaking, because I do love onions. And I'll hope for good rains...I know the lack thereof makes my homegrown radishes "bitey".

              Funny about storage....seems like back in the 70's, my mom could store onions and potatoes almost all winter in the cool dark of our pantry, with no ill effects.

              1. re: pinehurst

                Yes, it does seem like back in the day onions and potatoes lasted much longer once brought home, than they do today. Now even though I am careful to keep them in the dark, separately stored, well ventilated in a not hot place, I'm lucky if they last a week. Complaining to the store makes no difference.

                1. re: pinehurst

                  More helpful hints for "un-bittering" onions. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/686363
                  I haven't tried any of them, the red sweets I've been buying are pretty good.

            2. Part of it might be that it's the wrong season for onions.

              We grow our own onions, so about half of them are rotting at this point in the year. It's better for us to use green onions or chives this month. But, if I do use onions, I'll pop them (diced) in the macaroni pot to boil for about 30 seconds before draining them. That seems to take most of the "sting" out of them.

              1 Reply
              1. re: MickiYam

                Mid April is the start of the sweet Vidalia onion season. Late Spring and Summer are sweet onion season in general. So they are in season. It's the "storage" onions that are in season end of summer and fall that you are talking about.

                But, I have noticed that sweet onions, and Vidalia's in particular, aren't as sweet as years ago. They are very prone to rotting and don't keep well. Only 4-6 weeks. It was only in the 90's that they used apple storage technology to do long term storage of sweet onions. Possibly the gases they use may be affecting the onions.

                "With Controlled Atmosphere (CA) storage technology, Vidalia onions can be stored for several months in an atmosphere where the levels in normal breathing air are adjusted to 92% nitrogen, 5% carbon dioxide and 3% oxygen and the air temperature is maintained at approximately 33 degrees with 70% humidity."

                By the way, it isn't that they have much more sugars than other onions, it's that they have less pungency because of less sulphur and more water. Also, young onions are sweeter tasting than older ones.

                This years (2013) Vidallia onion crop may not be as good as other years. Due to weather and other factors much, much, more of the crop started to go to seed this spring.

                April 19, 2013
                "Above-average rainfall and unseasonably cold weather as late as Easter weekend combined to delay the start of the Vidalia sweet onion season, but growers have uncovered another issue with their 2013 crop: Seed stems, also referred to as "bolters," "flower stalks," or "seeders," are showing up throughout the Vidalia onion production district in alarming numbers.

                Growers noted high percentages of seed stems in mid-April across the production area, according to the Vidalia Onion Committee.

                During the growing season, multiple stress factors can affect the health of an onion and lead to seed stems. The condition causes the core of an onion to become hollow, which results in rapid deterioration of the entire onion, according to a press release issued by the VOC."

              2. Do they look like they might possibly be going bad? Sometimes the onions we buy will start to give off a foul smell shortly before they start becoming visibly dark in areas.

                In addition to soaking them in water before eating them raw, I've even heard people suggest soaking them in milk (haven't tried that yet though).