Mellowing The Onions

Salted Onions

Often when we judge the traditional authenticity of a cuisine or recipe, we look at what ingredients are used and generally, how the dishes are prepared. What many of us may tend to ignore, or perhaps fail to seek out, are the personal touches or traditions that give an additional boost of authenticity to certain special recipes. Tips and tricks passed down through generations or swapped among friends at a Sunday get together. Techniques that, while usually simple to carry out, add more depth to flavors and textures. A dash of sugar to create a richer tasting meat filling for empanadas or a squirt of mustard to add a spicy tang to a mayonnaise-based salad. For some it may be guarded as a secret ingredient but for others, that is just how things are done. Sadly when these recipes are passed around, many of these steps get lost along the way–whether intentionally or not. A person who sees no difference in peeling and seeding tomatoes for grandma’s old recipes, for example, may not include that step when they themselves pass the recipe along.

I have previously mentioned certain steps that people employ when preparing chimichurri here in Argentina. Some prefer to add warm or boiling liquids to tame the pungent fresh ingredients. Many prefer to let chimichurri sit for at least day or more to balance out the flavors before use. However in the past few years, there has been an increase in bloggers, cookbooks, and TV chefs telling people to prepare and serve the chimichurri immediately after dumping everything into a food processor.

Recently I’ve been thinking about steps that are taken to tame the pungent bitterness of raw onions. A comment that was posted to the Chimichurri: Debunking The Myths post back in August brought this up in relation to how some prepare Mexican salsas.

That is similar to what is done in Mexico when making some salsas, particularly those made with raw onion. You should always put the chopped raw onion in a bowl with cool water and let it soak for about 15 minutes. Makes a world of difference as it brings out the natural sugars in the onion and removes the harshness.

In return I gave a reply about witnessing a similar step years ago on a food travel show’s Mexican segment where a person poured hot water over chopped raw onions and immediately followed with cold water. Before this revelation was bestowed upon my naive mind, I simply added chopped, minced, or processed raw onions to Mexican salsas with no other treatment because that is what the recipes stated. After this bit of information became available to me on my path to being a better cook, my salsas were never the same. That bitter harshness was finally eliminated, the flavors were much more smooth and one ingredient did not overpower the others. I’m still not sure how many people in Mexico prefer the hard edge of raw onions to mellowed onions in their fresh salsas. Also, I can’t say, technically, whether or not one method is more authentic over the other. Should this even be discussed? However, in my personal view, these extra steps make the salsas seem more authentic at an emotional level. Applying more effort to further prove that one cares for the outcome of their dish and ensuring a proper balance among the flavors and textures.

I’ve also learned that these steps may be just as popular in Chile as well for sauces such as pebre and mayonnaise-based seafood and potato salads. Perhaps for many other dishes as well. I could never properly recreate a friend’s recipes until I learned that she salted the onions for a few minutes before applying a cold water rinse. This step really adds a unique delicious twist in flavor. No harsh interrogation tactics were used to get this tip, she simply failed to mention salting the onions previously because the task is so common to her.

I recently stumbled across a blog from Chile that detailed another way of mellowing onions:

It involved cutting ‘plumas’ (feathers) of white onion (think thin strips), putting them in a bowl and covering them with water that’s just boiled. Then Denisse added a heaping tablespoon of sugar to the water and onions. We waited a wait a couple of minutes before draining the bowl. Soaking the onions in sweet hot water made them unbelievably mild and somehow juicy.

Obviously all of this is not really groundbreaking and people employ these methods around the world but you have to wonder why are they not often included in many recipes or even acknowledged, when in fact, they might be a integral part of preparing a dish. As for the various steps out there, it is not for me to say if one way is better than the other, more of a personal preference really. One may be more suitable for a particular recipe than another so it’s best to experiment. If you have a method you would like to share, post a comment!

Tips For Mellowing Onions

Use these steps after you have sliced, chopped, or minced onions for a recipe.

If you want crunchy onions that are mild but still retain that fresh flavor: Soak onions for 15-30 minutes in cold water.

Similar to quick pickling, this method draws out much of the moisture (they’ll still be crunchy) and harshness in the onions while boosting that oniony flavor. In a colander, rinse onions with cold water. Add a few pinches of salt (depending on quantity of onions) and mix. Let onions sit for 5-10 minutes, over a bowl or sink to catch the liquid, and rinse with cold water.

For softer and sweeter onions: In a colander, pour hot or boiling water over chopped onions. Immediately follow with cold water until onions are cold, to stop the cooking.

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10 Comment(s)

  1. It was one of the first things my partner corrected about my ceviches when I moved here, he said “In Peru we always soak the onions that go on top in cool saltwater for 10-15 minute before putting them on the plate”. Who knew?

    Dan | Oct 7, 2010 | Reply

  2. Thanks Dan, didn’t know about that either.

    Asado Argentina | Oct 7, 2010 | Reply

  3. This is a great tip, and one I’ve never heard before! Thanks! I’ll be using it.

    Rebecca | Oct 27, 2010 | Reply

  4. Thanks for the tip. I will try it in cases where salt does not form part of a dish.

    Here’s a tip which I learnt from my mum. A good rub with salt prior to using them in salsas and other dishes takes the edge out. When making guacamole, I throw in the onions first, good pinch of salt and beat a few times with the pestle followed by cilantro and the rest of the ingredients. The guacamole and salsas in Mexico never exhibit a strong onion after taste.

    Neil | Dec 26, 2010 | Reply

  5. Wow, my mind has been blown. It’s just that easy isn’t it?! Thank you for the revelation:)

    dp | Nov 7, 2011 | Reply

  6. In Mexico, we do use this idea often when we are using raw onion, but we also use the juice from a couple of the Mexican limes (lemons) and depending on the use, sometimes a bit of salt. It is the touch that gives brightness to quickly made salsas or garnishes and as you mentioned, keeps them balanced.

    Mike Dunham | Jan 21, 2012 | Reply

  7. Thank you for such an honest and informative post! This is the first time I’ve stumbled upon your blog, and I am so happy that I did.Travel Oh Travel

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