Kitchen Garden Seeds

The Flavor Makers: Onions, Leeks and Shallots

In the kitchen, Onions are the one vegetable we must have on hand, no matter what, with ample backup, all the time. Their deep, rich flavor sounds the base note in delicious recipes the world over. Tomato sauce, salsas, soups, stews and casseroles would fall flat without the Onion’s mellow sweetness.

When you’re the gardener as well as the cook, you can guarantee a diverse, ever-ready Onion stockpile for yourself. They’re remarkably easy to grow and even easier to store. With a bushel of Onions in your basement, you’ll be able to slip something from your own garden into almost every meal you make for the better part of the year, and for mere pennies (the frugal gardener and cook in each of us will rejoice.)

So What’s There to Cry About?
As Onions grow, they absorb all sorts of minerals from the soil, but they are particularly good at absorbing sulfur. It’s these sulfurous compounds that bring tears to our eyes, and that give Onions their amazing depth of flavor. The more pungent the Onion, the more sulfurous compounds it contains. That’s why a “sweet” Onion draws fewer tears than a standard cooking Onion. (To minimize tears while prepping Onions, chill the Onions prior to cutting and use a very sharp knife to slice, rather than crush, Onion membrane. When Onion membranes are crushed, enzymes are released that cause a ‘gas’ to be emitted that creates an acid when mixed with water, hence, irritated eyes.) Lucky for us, those same sulfurous compounds are also good for our health. Research shows Onions contain notable antioxidants, immune system boosters and detoxifiers. Beyond their restorative goodness, they are delicious in an infinite repertoire of recipes and preparations. What more could you ask of a little Onion claimed from the soil?

All in the Family
The mildest members of the Onion family are the ones we eat young and green: Scallions, and Leeks. Plant some Fukagawa Japanese Bunching Onions and you’ll have scallions all summer long for marinades and dips, salads, tabbouleh and spring rolls. The mild, yet complex flavor of Leeks is ideal for soups and sauces. Have you tried the recipe for Sweet and Sour Leeks yet, or eaten Leeks braised simply in chicken broth and a little lemon? Guilt-free ambrosia. Our Lincoln Leeks are a mild-tasting Dutch hybrid that you can pick early for tender baby Leeks, or let bulk up for fall harvest.

If you’re a fan of raw Onions, consider Yellow Granex Sweet Onions. Truth be told, they’re the same mild and juicy Onion that’s grown in Vidalia, Georgia. If you live in a colder climate than Georgia, your homegrown Yellow Granex won’t be quite as sweet, but it’s still a delicious choice. Sweet Onions only store for a month or two (they’re lower in sulfur, which is also a natural preservative) but that’s rarely a problem. You’ll use them up in no time on the grill, in summer salads, for pickles or for an army of frozen envelopes of caramelized Onions standing at the ready in your freezer door.

The workhorse of the Onion family is the standard cooking Onion. Round and firm with a tight, shiny skin, they are rich in flavor and store for months. We offer three, time-tested favorites: Yellow Stuttgarter, Red Wethersfield and White Ebenezer. Grow them all and have fun discovering their subtle differences in the kitchen. And, don’t forget about Shallots. An expensive luxury at the store, they’re practically free when you grow your own. We always plant some French Red (spring and fall planting) and French Grey Shallot Sets (fall planting only). If you’re a serious Shallot lover, growing Shallots from seed will give you an embarrassment of riches. Ambition Shallots produces juicy, extra large bulbs with glossy red-gold skin. We also offer a magnificent French heirloom, Zebrune Shallots has pinkish-brown, elongated bulbs, which have a mild, sweet flavor.

Seeds or Sets?
If you’re new to growing Onions, planting “sets” is the easiest way to go. These are miniature Onions that were harvested last year before they could mature. Plant Onion sets this spring and they’ll practically leap out of the ground, giving you green Onions within a few weeks and full size Onions by late summer. For a perfect sampler, try our Red, Yellow and White Onion Set Mixture. We also offer all three separately. You can count on 1 pound of Onion sets to produce about 150 Onions. (Note: due to state mandated agricultural restrictions, onion sets may not be shipped to ID, NV, WA or HI -- seeds are OK.)

The only hard part about growing Onions from seed is making sure you get them planted early enough. Sow the seeds indoors, 10 to 12 weeks before planting time. (Complete instructions are included on seed packets.) Grow them under lights and keep the little plants trimmed to about 2″ tall. We offer seeds for several types of Onions, including the pretty pearl Barletta, sweet and crunchy Yellow Granex, and our two little Cippolinis: Red Marble and Borettana. If you want to grow Onions from seed, now is the time to get them planted indoors, as the transplanted little onions would normally be planted outside around the Frost-Free Date in your area. If you prefer to grow from sets, we encourage you to order early so you have them on hand. Onions don’t mind cold weather, so they can be planted out just as soon as the ground can be worked.

You may your Frost-Free Date from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Select your State from the pull down menu, this will generate a PDF file with a list of NOAA data collection sites in your State. In the left column, choose the location nearest or most similar to where you live. Then read across. Use the middle threshold number (32F) and right next to it, in the Spring column, will be the 50% probability date. This is your all-important average Frost-Free Date.

A Delicious and Frugal Tip: Caramelized Onions
Should you find yourself with too many Onions, we have an easy solution. Caramelized Onions are like homemade jam. They’re good on almost everything. Slice up enough Onions of any kind to make 8 cups. Tip them into a heavy saucepan with a generous amount of olive oil (½ cup or so). Sauté for an hour on low to medium heat. When most of the moisture has cooked off and the Onions begin to thicken, add ½ cup brown sugar and ¼ cup good balsamic vinegar. Continue cooking until they are thick and golden. Caramelized Onions freeze beautifully in zip-top bags. Need a quick dinner solution? Spread some caramelized onion on pizza dough, sprinkle with dried herbs and shredded parmesan (or goat cheese), top with a handful of pine nuts and bake.

Shallot and Onion Sets are So Easy to Grow
Few things in life are easier than growing Shallot and Onion Sets. Prepare their bed in a nice spot with well-draining, neutral pH soil with a minimum of six hours of daily sunlight. Incorporate neutral pH compost, well-rotted manure or a well-balanced fertilizer as necessary. Separate multiple bulbs and plant each individual bulb, root end down, 1″ deep and 4″ to 6″ apart in rows spaced 18″ apart. Once planted, bulb tips should be level with the soil surface. Do not mulch because the dark green shoots that appear within a couple of weeks of planting are not strong enough to push through mulch and may rot. After planting and over the course of the season, water at the rate of about 1″ of water per week if rainfall is sparse and the soil becomes dry (lighter in heavy soil). Easy to grow, Shallots and Onions love water and food. Weed the bed regularly and remove any seed stalks so that the plant’s energy focuses on bulb formation. Stop watering once the tops begin to brown and dry out, and the bulbs have reached maturity. Once harvested, dry and cure Shallots (for one month) and Onions (for two to three weeks) in a warm spot out of direct sunlight with good air circulation. Do not dry and cure them outside or in the sun where they can get sunburned and vulnerable to rot. Once cured, both Shallots and Onions should be stored in mesh bags in a cool dry area for up to eight months at an optimum storage temperature of 35° to 45°F.

Shallot Sets
In horticultural zone 4 and colder, Shallots should be planted in the spring as soon as the soil can be worked. Each one-pound Shallot Set is enough to plant a 20-foot row. The number of little bulbs per set varies annually based on the harvest. On average, a one-pound Shallot Set will yield 10 to 15 times as many mature Shallots. Shallots will form a cluster of five to 12 bulbs around each original “mother” bulb thereby requiring minimum 4″ spacing. Once the green tops yellow and dry out after about three months, Shallots may be harvested by pulling them up in clusters. (Note: French Gray Shallots may be stored for up to two months at an optimum storage temperature of 50° to 60°F.)

Onion Sets
Our Onion Sets are small bulbs up to 1″ in diameter for planting as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. Or, you may plant them 2″ apart so that you can harvest every other plant as slender green Onions (scallions) in four to six weeks: they intensify in flavor as they mature and grow larger. The remaining bulbs take another six to nine weeks to grow into mature storage Onions, depending on the season.