It is that time of year again, and I have another bag of onions sitting on my front porch. I just used up the last of the frozen and refrigerated onions wrapped in paper towels (as in the methods described below). I still have some dried slices, but I’ve managed to use the 35 pounds of onions I was gifted with last year throughout the seasons, enjoying Vidalias in Thanksgiving dressings, winter stews and springtime quiches. Here is my post from last year documenting Onion Week at my house, with a couple of notes from me about what turned out to be the best preservation methods (in Italics).
The right combination of weather and location plus a very low sulfur content in the soil allows Toombs County, Georgia and the 13 counties around it to produce some of the sweetest and juiciest onions in the world, our fabulous local delicacy Vidalia Onions. Their high moisture content and sweetness make them amazing sliced raw into salads, and once you bake them or grill them those sugars caramelize creating a golden brown, sweet, juicy, slurpy summertime treat. The Vidalia onion season runs from April through September, with May and June being the peak of the season.
A friend of mine works in that area of Georgia and knows I love them, so he brings me a big bag every year. Unlike regular yellow onions, Vidalias are not “storing onions”, so they have to be handled carefully to make sure they don’t go bad before you get to use them all. A 25 pound bag of onions is a lot of produce! In addition, he had bought 2 more bags for himself and his friends and family, but circumstances would have prevented him from doing anything with his onions in a timely fashion, so I told him to bring them to me. I processed through 75 pounds of onions over the course of about a week and a half!
Faced with that many onions, I set myself a challenge to see how many ways I could preserve them so that they would be available for use all year long. The first step was cleaning and sorting through the bags. Vidalia’s are prone to mold and bruising. If kept in a bag they can rub against each other and get damaged easily.
Once an onion starts to go, it will take the other onions around it down quickly too, so anything questionable should be removed and cleaned for more immediate use. Onions for storing should be cleaned of the outer skin (the mold tends to form between the outer layer of dried skin and the first layer of moist onion), and the stem should be snipped close to the top. Mold spores (seen as streaks or dots in the photo) will often start forming around the stem portion, so special care should be taken to inspect this area. Onions with wide stems will go bad faster than those with small stem areas.
The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service has several recommendations, their favorite utilizing an empty drawer in your refrigerator.
Wrap each onion in a paper towel and pack them gently into the drawer. The paper towel will cushion them while storing them in a cool, dry place.
(This was by far the best preservation method for the fresh onions. The pantyhose onions did well, but towards the end the ones that were left tended to dry up or get mushy or sprout, while the refrigerated ones stayed usable up to 10 months.)
When I first moved to Georgia in 1977 we were told about “The Panty Hose Method”.
Take a pair of pantyhose and cut them apart through the central panty seam. Cut down through the panty part to form 4 ties, use these to hang the legs when you are finished. Place an onion into a leg, letting it fall all the way to the toe. Tie a knot just above that onion, then add another, tie another knot, etc., until you have filled the leg. Mine took about 8 medium onions in each leg. Hang the legs in a cool, dry, dark place to keep them from touching one another and avoid bruising and molding. Check on them periodically, gently squeezing to make sure they haven’t gone mushy. If they have, cut the bad one out, it shouldn’t have affected the others.
To use you can snip them off just below the knot holding the next one up, or you can carefully slice into the hose around the one you want to gently remove it and not disturb the ones below it.
(I also found that if there was a larger or smaller onion I wanted instead of the last on one the bottom, I could just slit the hose open and slide the onion out, leaving the knots intact. The Pantyhose Method preserved the onions pretty well, with some drying of the outer skin, for a good 6 months.)
After filling my spare fridge drawer and using up the package of panty hose I bought, I was still faced with loads of onions, including the ones that weren’t suitable for long-term storage. My first job was to make a large batch of caramelized onions, chopping up roughly 10 pounds and filling a turkey roasting pan 1/3 full. I added a few pats of butter, put the whole thing in a medium oven and let them go for 4 hours, stirring about once every half hour. I got the most delicious batch of caramelized goodness, perfect for making a dandy French Onion Soup, Mujadarra (Middle Eastern Lentil and Rice dish), and garnish for grilled meats and fish.
(I kept the caramelized onions in a sealed container in the refrigerator for several weeks as I used them in various dishes. It took me about a month and a half to use them all up and they never spoiled.)
Next I cranked up my dehydrator, sliced and diced some onions, then dried them and stored them in jars. Each jar can hold several onions when dried, my pint jar of slices held 6 onions when they were finished! When putting up foods I’ve preserved in the dehydrator, I throw in a desiccant pack that I save from old vitamin pill bottles. These help keep moisture out of your dried goods, giving them a much longer shelf life.
My last preservation method was freezing. After cutting my onions into medium dice chunks, I spread them out on a sheet pan and put them in the freezer. Once frozen, I measured them into 1 cup portions and transferred them to labeled bags for easy addition to future soups, stews and sautés. Freezing flat keeps the pieces separate, preventing them from forming into one large frozen lump.
(These came in very handy throughout the year, lasting a full 12 months as I used up the last bag this week. They had accumulated some frost but it didn’t hurt their texture as I was putting them into taco meat. If you have a food sealer that removes the air from packages before sealing them, this would be a great use for it.)
My friend has come and gotten his legs of onions, along with some jars of dried onions and a few bags of the frozen ones. I have my fridge drawer full, one leg hanging in my hallway (I sure hope it is cool, dry, and dark enough in there for them – this is when a root cellar would be ideal!), a couple of jars of dried sliced and diced onions, several bags in the freezer and a tub of caramelized onions in the fridge. I’ve made Baked Onions in Foil, sautéed them into several fresh dishes, made some wonderful Kale and Sweet Onion Pie, and even made some Lamb and Rice Stuffed Onions. I just found a recipe for Vidalia Onion Jerky on the Vidalia Onions Facebook Page and I can’t wait to try that next!
Check out my Chef Christy Facebook page for more information, including my photo album documenting the entire process of Onion Week here!
(Getting ready for Onion Week 2013, and looking forward to getting another year of use out of these Georgia delicacies!)