A Bowl of Onion Transcript

Park Bench (Marietta Square)

    [imitating Forrest Gump] "Life is like an onion. You peel it off a layer at a time. Sometimes you cry."  Or so wrote Carl Sandburg. Now ancient Egyptians saw eternity in the onion's concentric spheres and often swore oaths with one hand on an onion. The Byzantines took the symbolism even further topping some of the their most important buildings with onion shaped domes. Now the middle-ages, onions were held in such high esteem as to be considered suitable as wedding gifts. Tough to engrave, but nice.
    Now during a particularly sticky part of the American Civil War, General Sherman wrote to Washington swearing he would not move his army one inch further until they received not flour, bacon, coffee or beer, but onions. See, not only were they nutritious, but they were great at keeping open wounds sterile. Yeech.
    Now, suitable though they may be for culinary symbolism, the onion is anything but simple. Join us, as we take a closer look at this mighty bulb. We'll take a road trip, rediscover a classic kitchen tool, arrange a bouquet, play the stock market and make the best soup that ever floated cheese toast.
    [imitating Forrest Gump] Like my momma always said, "Good Eats is as Good Eats does."

Harry's Farmers Market - 9:30 am

    Like their cousins, garlic and shallots, all onions are members of the Lily family. Which, like many annual flowers, grow from bulbs instead of seeds, which is why we eat onions instead of onion plant seeds. All onions break down into two distinct categories:  storage onions and fresh onions.
    Available from late summer through mid-spring, storage onions come in yellow, white, red, even these little pearl varieties. They're easily recognized by their sturdy, tight bulbs and kind of a thick, papery skin that's a result of the drying or curing they undergo before hitting the market place.
    Generally, storage onions are hotter than fresh onions in flavor with the white specimens being even stronger than the dark specimens. Storage onions are almost never marketed by variety but by color. And they do live up to their name. They're called 'storage onions' because with so much moisture already dried out of them, they do keep in a cabinet longer. They'll eventually sprout, but it will be a long time after fresh onions have sent up plants a foot high.
    Fresh onions also come in red, white and yellow. But they lack the thick papery skins and strong flavors of storage onions. Now except for Hawaii's Maui Sweet which is available year round, most fresh or sweet onionsWalla Wallas from Washington State, Texas Sweet 1015s and Georgia's sublime Vidaliaare only available from mid spring through the summer. Higher sugar and moisture contents give these onions an incredible intense sweetness but a short shelf live ... not that they ever stick around that long.
    Oh, fresh onions almost always have a brand name, a variety sticker of some type [the example shown was Primo Sweet]. But there is, of course, an exception, green onions. Now basically, any onion that still has its green stem on board is called a green onion. These [for] instance are Green Vidalias. Now leeks and scallions, on the other hand, are different varieties despite the fact that many market produce managers call any green onion a scallion. But don't you believe them.

On the Railroad Tracks: Vidalia, GA

    Terroir. [pronounced tear-WAH] Literally it's French for 'dirt' or 'earth'. Figuratively, it means, well, the taste of a place, the idea being that anything that grows in the ground, owes at least some of its flavor to that particular piece of ground that it grew in. I mean, take wine, for instance. The grapes that grew on this slope can't possibly taste exactly the same as the grapes on that slope which gets a little more afternoon light and has a few more rocks in it.
    Now the French, who always take these things very seriously, actually have legally controlled growing areas called appellation contrôlée. It's kind of like taking out a copyright on a place. And what works for burgundy or Bordeaux also works right here in Vidalia, Georgia. Only we're not talking wine, we're talking onions.

Onion Farm: Vidalia, GA

GUEST: Yumion
            Deborah Duchon, Nutritional Anthropologist.

    Once upon a time—well, 1931— a local farmer named, Mose Coleman, made a discovery. He noticed that some of his onion crop tasted different, sweet instead of hot. Now he harvested the onions, passed them out to family, friends and neighbors and they started planting them and replanting them over the years until eventually they developed a whole new onion, now known as the F1 Granix Hybrid.

[Picture courtesy Means Street Productions]

    Now, by the mid 40's people passing through this neck of the woods on the new highway, started carrying bags--big bags--of the sweet bulbs all over the country from California to New Jersey to Florida. And some of them even tried planting them when they got home. And they grew, but the magic was gone. They turned out hot, instead of sweet. I'd love to know why but I don't know if there is anybody I can talk to. [looks around and notices Yumion]. Okay, I'll bite.

[Picture courtesy Means Street Productions]

AB: So hello, Mr. ... uh ... Yumion, is it? Okay, so why are these things so gosh, darn sweet?
YUMION: [points to the ground]
AB: Dirt? You're telling me Dirt is the secret?

    Mr. Yumion went on to explain how the soil all around Vidalia contains freakishly low amounts of sulfur, the substance responsible for the average onion's heat.

AB: Well, thanks a lot Mr. Yumion, I'll be seeing ya. You know a guy named Puffinstuff, maybe? No? You're not related to Don King, are ya?

Only 20 Georgia counties can call their onions "Vidalias"

    To fully appreciate what Mr. Yumion was saying to us, we really need some historical perspective. But I, of course, am not a culinary anthropologist. But, uh, you are.

DEB DUCHON: Yes, I am.

AB: So, I heard that Mr. Christopher Columbus planted the first onion plantation in America with imported bulbs.
DD: Well, yes, actually he planted them on the island of Hispaniola and the bulbs he used were the Egyptian variety Allium cepa.
AB: So, that means that the onion is an old-world crop.
DD: Well, no not really. Actually, there were lots of wild onions already growing all through the Americas and the Native Americans had been using them for centuries for food and medicine.
AB: How many different kinds are we talking?
DD: At least 17 species in North America alone.

[Picture courtesy Means Street Productions]

    Each year, onion connoisseurs everywhere eagerly await the arrival of the Vidalia onion. And despite scientific harvests and sophisticated low-oxygen storage facilities, there just aren't enough to go around. So, me, I buy early and as you can see, I buy a lot.

Vidalia Onions 12.5% Sugar
Ordinary Onions 7% Sugar

Under the Stairs

    So, if you're lucky enough to come into possession of, say, 25 pounds of Vidalia onions, try doing what they do down in Georgia. Just get yourself a cheap pair of panty hose—or dozens of cheap pairs of panty hose—and just string them up under the stairs or someplace cool and out of the way and just fill up the legs with onions. Just make sure you tie a good knot in between each one and then just snip them out as you need them. Or, just take the whole thing.
    No room to hang your Hanes? Well, just remember, onions are like us. They like to be cool, dry and well ventilated.

The Kitchen

GUEST: Jacque, Kitchen Slave
            Shirley O. Corriher

    Two things to remember about storing bulb onions:  number one, light makes them sprout. And once they sprout they taste bitter. So keep them in the dark. Which leads us to number two, fight the urge to store them along side the other subterranean favorite, the potato. Potatoes and onions do not get along because potatoes give out a lot of moisture. And moisture makes onions rot.

+ Potato  

    Refrigerators are moist, too. So, keep cut onions wrapped in a couple layers of plastic wrap or better yet, a heavy re-sealable plastic bag. That'll help to keep their flavors from taking over everything in the refrigerator ... which they will.
    Now if you're determined to keep raw, whole, sweet onions in here, wrap them tightly in heavy foil. But don't count on them lasting as long as they would under the stairs.

    Every Dr. Frankenstein has an Igor. Jacque here is mine.

AB: Are you ready for the onion cutting experiment, Jacque?
JACQUE: Oui, master.
AB: Exxxxcelent.

   Anyway, Jacque and I figured it was about time somebody broke down and tested all these crazy solutions that people have for making onion cutting a tear free experience. Begin the experiment!

  1. The bread trick

  2. The frozen onion trick

  3. The burning candle trick

  4. The scarf trick

  5. The contact lens trick ...
    J: ...I don't wear contact lenses ...

  6. The fan trick

  7. The burned match in mouth trick

  8. The lit burner trick

  9. The cold running water trick and

  10. The gas mask trick.

AB: So, Jacque, tell us. What were your findings?
  J: [in scuba mask] Well, these work great, but do I look silly?
AB: Noooo. No. You look great. You do. Thanks.  Give my love to Flipper.

   So, you can block the fumes with a non-ventilated mask. You can maybe calm down the tears a little by working near an open flame, maybe. Or chilling the onions could help ... sort of ... sometimes. What I really want to know is why do onions make us cry to begin with. And that's something any food scientist worth her salt should be able to tell us. And our food scientist is worth lots of salt. Cause we have food scientist to the stars, Shirley Corriher.

AB: Hi, Shirley
AB: I like your hair.
SC: I like your hair, too.
AB: I just wanted to say that. So, why do onions make us cry?
SC: Well, animals can run from their prey but poor plants have to stand there. And so all they do is resort to chemical warfare.
AB: Chemical warfare.
SC: When you damage an onion or attack it by biting it or cutting it, sulfuric compounds in one part of the cell get to enzymes in another and make this gas that comes up and when it hits liquid in your eye, sulfuric acid.
AB: Ouch. That would hurt.
SC: And that stings, it burns fiercely.
AB: Okay, thanks. So what's your favorite onion dish?
SC: How about onion soup?
AB: Onion soup!


   Whether we're overwhelmed, over wrought, under the weather or under the gun, it's soup we crave.
    So, why don't we make more soup? Now Beethoven said, "Only the pure of heart can make good soup."  Course, that would rule out a few members of the legal profession, maybe a sports agent or two, but I suspect what's really lacking is just good, old-fashioned, basic know-how. That, and well, maybe a good soup pot.

Bed Bath & Beyond: 2:47 pm

AB: [has a big pot on his head. Heaving breathing.] Luke, I'm your father. Clean up your room.
    Yeah, I know what you're thinking: big, black cauldron for soup, right? Something a witch or maybe your mother-in-law might stir? Now ordinarily you'd be right. I mean, look at this medievalesque Dutch oven. I mean, for long simmering stews and chowders this is perfect. But, when it comes to onion soup, I've got another favorite.
    Straight from lovin' momma's kitchen cabinet, it's the electric frying pan. So unhip, it is positively Hazel. Heck, it's not even ugly enough to be called Retro. So why am I in love? Versatility, amigo. Just look at that vast, open, non-stick plain just begging for pancakes or fried eggs. No more shoving bacon rashers into a round pan for you. No sir. Free-form crepes? No problem. Ugly, but good. Pan seared steak on the terrace? Copy that.
    The thermostat keeps oil at just the right temperature for frying, too. And what's best? Even the top of the line models rarely go for more than $30. Look for a 12 inch model with a calibrated thermostat, sturdy design, and a tall, tight fitting lid. You're going to love it. I promise.

The Kitchen

    One thing's for sure:  they don't call it onion soup for nothing. Now we're going to need enough sliced bulbage to fill that skillet all the way to the top. We're talking eight, maybe 10, onions. Now you can use yellow onions. You can use red onions. Or you can even mix and match. It's up to you. But whatever you do, don't skimp on the numbers.
    Now that darn Jacque, he ran off with my only scuba mask. But it's okay. We can avoid a heavy work load and a heavy tear load by prepping up all of the onions before we disassemble them. Just take a little bit off of both ends of the onion. And then slice it in half from pole to pole. Then you should be able to just reach under the skin with your blade and peel it off in, maybe, one or two pieces ... like that. Now get all of the onions prepped to this point and leave them cut side down on the board. Otherwise, in a few minutes, the tear level will be right up there with the scene where they lock up Dumbo's mom.
    Anyway, you could cut these with a V-Slicer or you could even use a food processor. But then you'd end up with rounds, which hang off a spoon in the finished soup kind of like seaweed. So what we want is little half moons. The trick is to think 'slice', not 'chop'.
     It only takes three tablespoons of butter to send this heap on its way to 'soupdom'. That and having our electric skillet set for 250°. Now, besides doing what any good fat would do, which is allow the onions to cook at a temperature hot enough for their sugars to caramelize, the butter's going to bring its own kind of nutty flavor to the party. It's something you might not miss unless it wasn't there.
     Now if you don't have an electric skillet you can use any really large, heavy pot just on the stovetop there on medium-low heat. Now as soon as the butter starts to melt, kind of swirl it around a little bit and load them in. Just pile the onions in but alternate every now and then with about a teaspoon of kosher salt. The salt's actually going to pull moisture out of the onions which will help them to caramelize faster.
     Now don't try to stir this mass or you'll just end up with a mess. Besides, in about 45 minutes to an hour all of this is going to reduce down into just a few cups. And as they reduce, the moisture is going to be leaving so the sugar is going to concentrate further and further. Which means they're going to be a lot more likely to burn. Let'em! Cool, huh?

Brûlé (Broo-lay) is French for "burned".

Kroger - 6:30 pm

GUEST:  Mad French Chef

    Now, we need a liquid that will embrace and enhance the flavor of our Vidalias.

MAD FRENCH CHEF: Only homemade bouillon will do. You must cook it for hours, simmering and simmering. Ecumer, depoullier, ecumer, depoullier! [ecumer means "to skim the scum", depoullier means "to remove the skin (that forms on top)]
AB: Yeah, chef. Thank you chef. Whatever, chef.

    You know, I'm sure the day will come when I've got time to stay at home and make hearty beef broth from scratch. But until then, I'm going to get by nicely on clever chemistry. My plan? Equal parts of canned, beef consommé along with carton-o-chicken-broth, and apple cider.
    Now, prepackaged or canned broths are very convenient but be sure to stick with the low sodium, fat-free models or your finished soup is going to go down like a mouthful of Great Salt Lake with a grease chaser. And, avoid bouillon cubes. They're nothing but salt licks.
    Now the concentrates that are becoming popular are okay, but use a little less of the mix than the instructions call for.

Consommé is a clarified meat or fish broth.

    Now good soup is a Zen thing. It's balanced. Now, if we get sweetness from the onions and the cider, earthiness and body from the broth and the consommé, we're still going to need some brightness from like an acid. Now Francis Henry II supposedly composed the first French Onion Soup from little more than onions and flat champagne. Not a bad choice, really. Sweet, yeasty, tangy. A good bottle of honey ale would do the trick as would a solid Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc maybe laced with a little balsamic or sherry vinegar or just plain sherry for that matter.
    You could use all of the above. Just remember, don't cook with something you wouldn't drink. And avoid red wine in this soup. It's tannins will kill all of that sweetness that we've worked so hard to get.

The Kitchen

GUESTS: Ken Doll and Barbie Doll

    Wow. Mount onion there is reduced to a shadow of its former self, but the onions are completely caramelized now. You can see the mahogany color and the aroma ... well, it smells good.
    Now add enough white wine just to cover. I like to use gewürztraminer but a Chardonnay would be fine, too. And then crank the heat all the way up. Now this is a technique that you see a lot in classic sauce making. The wine will cook down—well, almost to a syrup, really—and intensify in flavor.  Won't take long. Five, ten minutes, tops.
    Houston, we have syrup. A perfect syrup. Now, time for the final three liquids. We have 10 ounces of beef consommé. It's a little chunky, that's from gelatin. That's good. We're going to follow that with 10 ounces of either vegetable or chicken broth. And then finally, 10 ounces of apple cider, filtered or unfiltered, it doesn't matter.
    Now, what we need is a bouquet garni. That's basically a fancy way to say a bunch of herbs tied together with a string. Looks kind of like something a destitute Ken would give Barbie.

KEN DOLL: Hey, Barbie.
KD: I brought you flowers.
BD: Uh, they're ugly. [storms off]
KD: Jezebel.

AB: Ken, I'm sorry, man. She did you wrong. Can I? [takes bouquet] Thanks.

    Any fresh herb will do. I like a little thyme, parsley, maybe a bay leaf. Keep it simple. In it goes. Stir. And then bring everything down to a simmer for 20 minutes. Now if you're working with an electric skillet, it probably has a thermostat with a simmer setting. Go for it.
     Preheat your oven to broil and set the top rack so that it's about six inches from the hot stuff. Now you're going to need oven proof bowls ... or better yet, crocks. I picked these up for a song at a restaurant supply store just so I could make French Onion soup.
    Now before you buy or bake any bread, make sure that the slices are going to be wide enough to span the mouth of the crock. That way, you can just kind of punch out rounds. Bingo. Instant crouton. Just pop these under the broiler for about 30 seconds.
    Time flies. Speaking of time, it's been 15 minutes. Time to taste and think about our soup a little bit. Ah, fragrant. Tastes good, too, but it could use something ... I don't know, a little brightness, a little cognac, that would be good, too. Kind of a French bistro thing. Any time you cook with alcohol you should always let it cook just for a moment to soften the edges. [tastes] Perfect.
    Now, to assemble our masterpiece. First thing we want to do is ladle it into the crocks but only until we get about an inch from the edge. We gotta leave room for the lid. Then take one of the croutons and  make sure that you put the toasted edge down onto the soup. Then it's just a matter of sprinkling on lots of cheese.
    Now I prefer a one-two punch, kind of a combination of grated parmesan and maybe a smooth melting cheese like Fontina. If you like the stringy stuff go with mozzarella, but try grating it with a little bit of lemon juice first. The acid will keep those proteins from making those long nasty strings. Once you've got it built, under the broiler for a minute, two tops. You want to melt the cheese, not brown it.

Some folks say a thick onion skin foretells a hard winter.

The Kitchen

    Now, this might not be pretty to watch, but this is how you eat French Onion soup. The important thing is to get a bite of cheese toast with every spoonful. Ahhh. Like that.
    Well, the basics of the soup are really simple. You start with sweet onions or red onions or any combination thereof. You cook 'em long and low fearlessly burning them. And make sure you reduce the wine before you add the rest of the liquids. But whatever you do, don't miss this. Oh, and don't miss the next episode of Good Eats.

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Last Edited on 08/27/2010