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  • HDT Team

Picking the Right Onion

You can do so much with an onion. Purée it, sauté it, or chop it raw. It just doesn't matter what you do to it. It's gonna taste great, and, with over 600 varieties of onion out there in the wild, it's hard to pinpoint a favorite. According to the USDA, the onion is your third most favorite vegetable eaten, so there's a HUGE demand for this versatile veggie. Let's cover some of our favorites and how we like to prepare them.

Growing Onions in Minnesota

Onions come in two types, known as short day onions and long day onions. Short day onions develop their bulbs when the day length increases to 10-12 hours/day and long day onions need 14-16 hours of sunlight instead. In other words, some are better suited to shorter days while others need full sun, all day. If you have overcast days or colder temperatures during the summer, you'll end up with smaller bulbs. So what happens if you plant the wrong type of onion in your area? Small bulbs (which means less salsa!) Watch this quick video to find out why it's important to know which area you're in, to maximize your onion size.

We prefer to plant long-day sets here in Minnesota during the spring. Onions just don't do well with hard freezes and planting them in the fall can be hit or miss, depending on how insulated you keep them.

While it's technically possible to plant two batches (one in March in and the second in early June), the second batch might end up not as big due to the waning light hours in late summer/early fall. Instead, HDT producers do something pretty clever. They plant onions every 2 weeks and have a steady supply to harvest all throughout the growing season. With the right onion variety planted, each set should have the proper amount of sunlight to make sure there are no shortages for the kitchen!

Right Onion for the Right Situation

I found so many lists of favorite onions from around the web. There is literally a perfect onion for any dish. So, I wanted to simply share with you what our producers on campus like to grow and what they like to do with them.

Chopping up an onion and placing it into your salad, on your sandwich, or in a bowl of salsa is one of summer's best pleasures. These examples are perfect for any of these.

Walla Walla:

The Walla Walla sweet onion is the sweetest long-day variety. If proper conditions occur, you'll have a giant bulb on your hands at the end of the season. These babies are a magic key to any recipe. You can use them in raw in sandwiches, but the way I like to use them is to put them on the bottom of a roasting pan and with a beef roast sitting on top of them. Once the roast is done, turn the juices into a delicious onion gravy.

  • Plant 1 inch deep, spacing 6 inches apart

  • Makes 4 inch diameter bulbs

  • Matures in 110 days

  • Only shelves for one month, so plan accordingly

Ailsa Craig:

The Ailsa Craig onion can grow into giant 5 pound bulbs. It will not last long in a pantry, so freshly used is preferred. The plus side of these beauties is that they pair well with a lot of things. Roasting, to bring out that wonderful aroma, or freshly chopped to bring some zing to a salad.

  • Plant 1 inch deep in early March, spacing 4 inches apart

  • Can be harvested after 105 days

  • Makes 6-8 inch diameter bulbs

  • Short storage life, up to a month

Rossa di Milano:

Jim C. describes the Rossa di Milano as a sweet, yet pungent red onion that is almost too pretty to eat. Yeah, these guys are just dazzling. They work extremely well in fresh dishes, especially salsa. Add it to your pork roast dishes for color and a bit of sweetness.

  • Plant 1 inch deep in April or early May, about 3-4 inches apart

  • 100 days to maturity

  • Can overwinter very easily (6 plus months)


The Patterson onion is the king of long-term storage. If you want to have something to put into your pot all winter long, this variety will get you there, even in the long Minnesota winters. They go well in stir-fries, roasts and soups. The flavor is outstanding and will bring a bit of summer to your dark winters.

  • Plant 1 inch deep, 3-5 inches apart

  • Matures in 104 days

  • Can be stored for a long time (overwinter)


Not to be confused with shallots, the Pearl Onion is similar in size to the small comparison. These littles guys are grown mostly for pickling or for cocktail garnish. With their pleasantly mild flavor, you can even eat them fresh from the garden raw. Because of it's sweeter taste than a fully grown bulb onion, they've been used as substitutes for all sorts of dishes ranging from casseroles to relishes.

  • Plant in early spring in 2-4 inch wide bands about 4 inches apart

  • Their bulbs will vary in size depending on how north they are (larger if planted in the north, smaller bulbs if planted in the south).

  • Matures in only 90 days

  • Very short shelf life, lasting only a month.

With hundreds of varieties of onions to choose from with thousands of different culinary traditions to combine them in, you can have literally hundreds of thousands of ways to eat a plain ol' onion. However, here's one that our campus chef Chris loves to use at home.


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