I met a friend the other day who said she had bought a 6-pound bag of Vidalia onions when she needed just one. What could she do with all those onions? Then she offered them to me.

I willingly took them off her hands. I love the sweet onion flavor in almost everything I cook. All sweet onions are like candy when you slice them and then simmer them down in a bit of butter or oil. I like to serve them warm as a vegetable or use them to top a burger, brat or hot dog. They’re delicious just sliced and grilled, slathered with a bit of olive oil or melted butter.

That evening we had a light dinner of grilled, halved onions and a baby lettuce salad on the side — so perfect as a hot summer evening meal. When the weather cools off, I look forward to a sweet onion pie — another of my favorites.

Vidalia onions that are in season right now get their name from Vidalia, Ga., where they have been grown since 1931. Depending on the time of year, sweet onions go by different names, such as Walla Walla, Imperial, Carzalia, Texas Spring or Maui. They’re all pretty much the same. You can identify them by their names and their pale yellow color. They also are usually large with a shiny tissue-thin skin and are firm, tight and dry. When you shop, avoid onions that are soft or sprouting, as they are “over the hill.” They should have absolutely no smell.

Someone asked if you can use sweet onions instead of regular yellow onions in cooking. Of course you can, but sweet onions have a naturally higher water content, so you may need to cook them longer — and your dish might have a little less “onion bite” because they have more sugar and fewer of the sulfuric-acid compounds that give onions their characteristic flavor.

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Another thing, sweet onions can spoil more quickly as they are susceptible to bruising and nicks. Keep them in a cool, dry place to allow for air circulation, just as for all onions. One idea I read about is to put them into a sheer pantyhose. Place an onion in the toe, tie a small knot, drop in another onion, knot again … then when you need an onion, just cut below a knot. Best place to keep them is to hang them in a closet.

Sweet onions caramelize in a pan over low heat. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune
Sweet onions caramelize in a pan over low heat. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune

Caramelized Sweet Onions

Sliced thin and slowly sautéed in a skillet, onions become as sweet as candy and are delicious as a topping for main dishes such as hamburger and chicken breasts.

2 large sweet onions, papery peel removed

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil

Cut the onions into ⅛- to ¼-inch slices and separate the rings. Heat the butter or oil in a heavy skillet or frying pan and add the onions. Place over medium-high heat and cook for about 10 minutes until lightly browned. Reduce heat to medium low and cook another 30 minutes or until soft, stirring frequently. Remove from the heat and cool. You can transfer the onions into a covered container and refrigerate for up to 2 days or freeze up to 4 weeks.

Makes about 2 cups.

Chicken breasts under a blanket of sauteed sweet onions and bell peppers are ready for the oven. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune
Chicken breasts under a blanket of sauteed sweet onions and bell peppers are ready for the oven. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune

Chicken Breasts with Caramelized Onions

This is a richly flavored dish with the flavors of the caramelized onions, paprika, mushrooms and bell peppers.

4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves

All-purpose flour, salt and pepper

Pinch of paprika

2 tablespoons butter, melted

4 ounces sliced fresh mushrooms

½ recipe caramelized onions

1 red bell pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

¼ cup dry white wine

¼ cup chicken broth

4 slices mozzarella cheese

Fresh basil leaves, shredded

A topping of cheese is added after the chicken breasts are cooked through. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune
A topping of cheese is added after the chicken breasts are cooked through. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Wash the chicken breasts and pat dry; sprinkle with flour, salt, pepper and paprika. Arrange in an 8-inch baking dish. Drizzle with the melted butter and top with the mushrooms, onions and bell peppers. Pour the wine and broth over all. Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the chicken is cooked through. Remove the foil. Sprinkle with the cheese. Bake for 10 minutes until cheese is melted.

Makes 4 servings.

Sweet onion pie garnished with fresh green herbs. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune
Sweet onion pie garnished with fresh green herbs. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune

Sweet Onion Pie

Onions and allspice are a flavor combination especially popular in Sweden and Finland.

1 single 9-inch pie shell, homemade or purchased

1 recipe caramelized sweet onions

1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

3 eggs

1 cup light cream or half and half

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon ground allspice

1 cup shredded mild white cheese such as mozzarella or Monterey Jack

1 cup sour cream

Chopped fresh green herbs for garnish

Sweet onions, allspice, cheese and sour cream create a favorite combination of flavors in this onion pie. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune
Sweet onions, allspice, cheese and sour cream create a favorite combination of flavors in this onion pie. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Fit the pie shell into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and press it into the bottom and sides of the pan. Line the pastry with waxed paper and top with pie weights or dry beans. Bake for 20 minutes or just until edges begin to brown. Remove from the oven, cool slightly and remove the pie weights.

Reduce the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the caramelized onions evenly into the pie shell. In a small bowl, mix the flour, eggs, cream, salt, allspice, cheese and sour cream. Pour over the onions and sprinkle the cheese over the top. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until the pie is set. Sprinkle with chopped fresh herbs.

Makes 12 appetizer servings or 6 to 8 main dish luncheon servings.

Mushroom and Sweet Onion Casserole turns onions into a main dish for 3 or 4, or as a side dish for 6 to 8. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune
Mushroom and Sweet Onion Casserole turns onions into a main dish for 3 or 4, or as a side dish for 6 to 8. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune

Mushroom and Sweet Onion Casserole

Asiago cheese resembles the flavor of Parmesan, but a bit milder, less salty, and is semi-firm with a rich, nutty flavor that complements the mushrooms, onions and peppers here. I like to serve this casserole as a main dish. Just add a butter lettuce salad and crisp bread to the menu.

1 tablespoon butter

2 medium sized sweet onions, chopped

1 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

¼ pound fresh mushrooms, sliced

3 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 cup dry breadcrumbs

1½ cups shredded Asiago cheese

Chopped fresh basil for garnish

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 1½ quart casserole with nonstick spray.

In a large nonstick skillet, over medium-high heat, melt the butter and add the onions, pepper and mushrooms. Saute, turning and stirring the vegetables for 5 to 8 minutes until they are cooked. Remove from the heat and add the eggs and breadcrumbs. Transfer to the casserole and top with the cheese. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until the casserole is set. Sprinkle with the basil and serve hot.

Makes 4 servings.

Slather this hot cheese and onion spread on crackers or toast. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune
Slather this hot cheese and onion spread on crackers or toast. Beatrice Ojakangas / For the News Tribune

Hot Sweet Onion and Cheese Spread

This is a perfect make-ahead appetizer. The sweet onions are juicy and mild, so even though you use a lot of them, they don’t overpower the spread. Think of this for a big party!

2 tablespoons butter

2 large sweet onions, coarsely chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

2 cups shredded Swiss cheese

1 cup mayonnaise

1 teaspoon dried rosemary, crushed

½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce

½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese

Crackers or croutons for serving

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Coat a shallow, 1½ quart casserole with cooking spray. Melt the butter in a large skillet and add the onions and garlic. Saute for 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the heat. Add the Swiss cheese, mayonnaise, rosemary and Tabasco. Turn into the casserole dish. Bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes until lightly browned. Sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese and serve hot with crackers or croutons. Makes 16 servings.



Beatrice Ojakangas is a Duluth food writer and author of 31 cookbooks.