Onions (Oignons)

Do you know your onions or is it none of your onions? Discover the latter French expression, the sweetest French onions, storage and how to find the best and use in cooking. Also try a quick trick to stop them from making you cry.

box of fresh French onions at the market, marked that they're pink from Roscoff in France

Do you Know your French Onions?

  • Yellow, pink, red, green/spring onions (known as oignon blanc), shallots and baby (pearl) onions are most popular in France. White onions are less popular here. However, there are still many more varieties, all from the Allium family (including leeks, garlic and chives);
  • The 2 most reputed sweet French varieties with AOC & AOP quality status respectively are the Cévennes and Roscoff onions, both particularly sweet and fruity. Other less-known sweet French onions: Lézignan (grown since the 18th century) and Sisco, grown in Corsica (Cap Corse);
  • Remember the images of Frenchmen with onion tresses around their necks? These were the famous French Onion Johnnies of the 19th Century, who cycled around England selling Roscoff onions door-to-door, as the English were crazy about these pink Roscoff onions from Brittany;
  • Onions naturally contain sugar (5-10%) with yellow onions containing the highest sugar content (10%), so they naturally caramelise when cooked over a low heat. Works well in an onion tarte tatin.
  • Onion Benefits: they’re antioxidant, contain vitamin A, B, C & E, selenium, potassium, have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and antiseptic health properties, particularly best to effect if eaten raw; 
  • What onions are best to eat raw? Red onions, white and green/spring onions (oignon blanc) and shallots are mild, so add to salads and vinaigrettes;
  • Why do onions make us cry? Onions contain a sulphur-based gas which produces syn-propanethial-S-oxide which together react with the lacrimal glands in our eyes. It irritates them, makes us cry, so our tears try to dilute and flush out the irritant;
  • How to stop onions from making you cry: chill onions for 10 mins in the freezer and wash hands in cold, soapy water afterwards (avoid touching the eye area after!). The good news is that the gas disappears when onions are cooked. Otherwise, according to French MOF chef, Philippe Etchebest, “if you don’t want to cry when chopping onions, ask someone else to do it!”;
  • Best for cooking: yellow onions, as they’re most concentrated in taste; use baby pearl onions in the famous French dish, Blanquette de Veau;
  • Best for Sauces: shallots are best used finely chopped in sauces (sauce bearnaise, chorizo sauce);
  • To choose the best onions, ensure the skins are tightly formed on the onion and not flaking off; avoid frozen chopped onions, as they lose tons of flavour during freezing;
  • Store onions in a cool, dry and dark place, not in the fridge. According to a BBC report, avoid storing near potatoes or in metal containers, as this will discolour them.

Fun French Expression With Onions

Occupe-toi de tes oignons” or Mêle toi de tes oignons”
Familiar expression meaning “it’s none of your business” (literally translated as “look after your onions” or “mix yourself up in your own onions”)

Onion Recipes

Paris Food Guide

From the kitchen