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Harvesting essential flavors: Onions growing in Michigan

By Julia Darnton, Michigan State University Extension Educator

 “Life is an onion – you peel it year by year and sometimes cry.” – Carl Sandburg

Mixed Onions. Photo Credit: Julia DarntonOnions are an ever-present ingredient in recipes from soups to sauces and in every type of cuisine. In the botanical world, onions are part of the allium family along with leeks, chives, and shallots, and a more distant cousin of garlic and lilies. These plants are hardy and can grow in many climates, which may be why they are a common ingredient in many cuisines. In North America, Native Americans were using wild onions, raw and cooked, for both seasoning and medicinal use when European pilgrims arrived with their own varieties.

Today, different regions of the U.S. are known for different types of onion production. Michigan farms tend to grow onions for storage – referred to as “dry onions” by onion growers – or small quantities of spring and bunching onions, rather than sweet varieties like Vidalia onions. Vegetable farmers who sell at farmers markets may grow early bulb onions that are bunched together and have a sweeter flavor when harvested in June. As a storage vegetable, the yellow and white onion varieties are harvested in late summer when the tops of the plant begin to dry and fall over. When they are harvested some onions might be sold or consumed right away and while others may be cured for storage. To cure onions, they are placed in well-ventilated areas until the tops of the onions dry and are removed. Then they are stored in dark, cool areas with temperatures above freezing.

Onions can be enjoyed in many different forms. Raw onions have a sharp flavor which often can be experienced as heat when tasted. However, onions also can become sweet when sautéed and caramelized. When pickled in vinegar, thinly sliced red onions add a tart brightness to sandwiches and tacos. 

When planning to feature onions on school menus, consider the many uses for this flavorful ingredient. Sautee onions for a burger bar or a prepared sandwich like grilled steak sandwich with sautéed onions, or serve them fresh on a build-your-own salad bar. Onions are one of the first ingredients in USDA quantity recipes like chicken or turkey noodle soup, smokin’ powerhouse chili, or minestrone.

Michigan farmers’ capacity to grow storage onions make Michigan onions a great fit to use in institutions; with near year-round availability, they can be featured well into the winter months when fewer products are available. While Cultivate Michigan featured onions as a spring crop, consider highlighting Michigan storage onions as your featured food in January or February when soup or chili would be a welcome and warming treat!