Do Vidalia onions come up short for cooks?

SECONDARY 110502 Collins -- A bucketful of Vidalia onions harvested by a migrant worker from Mexico at Sikes Farms in Collins Monday, May 2, 2011. Bita Honarvar A bucketful of Vidalia onions. (AJC Staff)

Credit: John Kessler

Credit: John Kessler

SECONDARY 110502 Collins -- A bucketful of Vidalia onions harvested by a migrant worker from Mexico at Sikes Farms in Collins Monday, May 2, 2011. Bita Honarvar A bucketful of Vidalia onions. (AJC Staff)

On April 27, the produce aisle of my local supermarket was brimming with Vidalia onions. We waited until that date to buy them --- six days past the first shipping date allowed under the rules proposed by agriculture commissioner Gary Black. We waited for the drama to play out. We waited while onion grower Delbert Bland petitioned the state to allow him to ship earlier, while the judge hearing the case denied the request, and while Bland threatened to ship earlier despite the ruling. We waited until everyone on both sides of this dispute agreed that we were officially into the season for Georgia's signature crop.

And then we put the onions to the test.

I regretfully count myself among those home cooks who have found in recent years that Vidalia onions aren't what they used to be. As much I cheer the appearance of these local onions --- with their pale, papery skins and broad, flat shoulders --- in the markets in spring, I've found them increasingly less useful in my kitchen.

I usually keep sharp yellow onions hanging from a hook next to the stove. They make me tear up when I cut them, but they give more bass-note oomph to soups, sauces and stews than sweet onions.

Yet there are times I want a sweet onion for, say, a quick saute or stir fry, or for caramelizing, or simply for slicing raw to serve with lox and bagels. I'll buy Vidalias if they're in season, and they can be great. But they can also, frankly, be kind of a flavorless bummer. Not only that, when I hang a bag of Vidalias on that hook, I find that too often it transforms into a sac of drippy mush before long.

Such are the reasons behind the fight between onion growers and the ag commissioner. Too many consumers have complained that Vidalias aren't as sweet as they once were and that they spoil quickly. Black maintains the onions will get sweeter and hardier if left in the ground longer. Growers admit to wanting to get their produce to the markets early, but insist they know best when to pick.

Georgia's Official State Vegetable comes on the market in late April and remains available through mid-November, when the last of the crop's more than 20 million pounds comes out of cold storage. Georgia farmers have been growing sweet onions since the 1930s when it was discovered that the low amount of sulfur in the soil produced less alliinase, the enzyme that makes onions pungent and hot. By the 1970s growers began aiming for national distribution, and branding promotions began in earnest. By the mid-1980s, the state legislature granted legal status to the designation and defined the 20-county production area. The term "Vidalia" was trademarked in reference to onions.

Left to right: Texas sweet, Vidalia, yellow onion

Credit: John Kessler

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Credit: John Kessler

So, on to the test. I decided to put three onions head to head. I pitted a Vidalia onion against a Texas sweet onion and, as a ringer, a sharp yellow onion, all picked up from local supermarkets. I understand that not every onion can speak for its breed, and it's not like I searched out the best of the best, looking for the onion equivalent of Westminster Dog Show contestants. I just bought three onions and put them through their paces.

The Vidalia was the largest, weightiest, prettiest. The sweet Texas onion was the firmest. The yellow onion was a little past its prime, with a green shoot developing in the center.

I figured the first and best test of a sweet onion is to take an unadulterated bite in its raw state. That's what bullish Vidalia promoters say, that you "can eat them like an apple."

I'm not normally a fan of raw onions, figuring I have enough to worry about without scaring people away with my breath. But for the sake of research I selected three crisp rings and chomped down. Fascinating: the Texas onion was notably sweet. Not apple sweet or even sugar snap pea sweet, but a level of magnitude sweeter than the Vidalia.

Even the sharp onion tasted sweeter, though it was also more bitter and markedly more sulfurous. Hours later I'm still tasting it.

The Vidalia? Bland, sadly. I could detect some sweetness, but it's more appealing quality was its crisp texture. If I liked raw onions more, this is the one I'd want in my hamburger.

Next up I caramelized each of the onions. Normally I lavish more care on caramelized onions, deglazing them once with wine to give an acid backdrop for the concentrated sugars, and then deglazing them at least four times with chicken broth. I also always add fresh thyme, the caramelized onion's herbal soulmate.

For this experiment, I simply used butter to start the onions and deglazed them three times with chicken broth, adding a pinch of salt at the end.

Again, fascinating. The Texas onions behaved well, taking on a deep mahogany brown soon after hitting the sizzling fat and turning the successive pours of chicken broth into a viscous syrup. The plain yellow onions kept their shape longer but also took on a deep color.

Back: Texas sweet, Vidalia; front: yellow onion

Credit: John Kessler

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Credit: John Kessler

Our home-state honeys had a couple of issues. The thick skins separating the layers quickly burned in the hot pan and flecked the mass of caramelizing onions with ashy black flakes. The flesh meanwhile resisted caramelizing thanks to its higher water content. It took more coaxing and an extra couple of shots of chicken broth to get them coloring in any significant way. Even so, the onion rings never quite melted into a soft velvety mass but rather stayed integral, like floppy strands.

Then came the taste test. The Vidalias had concentrated their sugars enough so they tasted decidedly sweet, in a simple, pleasing way. The yellow onions tasted less sweet but more complex.

But my Texas onion ran away with the show with its layers of bittersweet flavor developed in the pan.

Now, I may have lucked into a particularly great Texas onion and gotten a sub-par Vidalia. I hope I did. And yet...

I may win the Bad Georgian of the Year contest for asserting this, but Vidalia onions --- while a fantastic source of pride and revenue for the state --- are far from a sure bet for the home cook.

Caramelized Onions

Total time: 15 minutes Hands on: 10 minutes Serves: 4

These caramelized onions make a great topper for burgers or an impromptu sauce for sauteed chicken breast.

  • 1 very large sweet onion
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1/4 cup dry sherry, Chinese cooking wine or dry white wine
  • 8 ounces chicken broth
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Trim both ends of the onion and peel off the outer skin. Cut it into 1/4-inch slices, and don't worry about being too even. Heat a cast-iron skillet over a high flame. Add the butter and thyme and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the onions in an even layer. Do not stir until they've blackened and started to shrivel. Turn them over and blacken the other side. Add the wine and stir until liquid is evaporated and the onions begin to cling to the bottom of the pan. Add 1/3 of the broth and stir well, scraping up any black bits on the pan. When the liquid is evaporated and the onions start to cling to the pan again, add another 1/3 of the broth and reduce heat to medium. Stir onions occasionally. When liquid is nearly evaporated, add the remaining broth and reduce, stirring often, just until liquid is thick and glossy. Season to taste and fish out the thyme sprigs.

Per serving: 69 calories (percent of calories from fat, 65), 3 grams protein, 3 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 5 grams fat (3 grams saturated), 12 milligrams cholesterol, 89 milligrams sodium.

- by John Kessler for Atlanta Restaurant Scene