In the early 17th century vegetables which had been unfashionable among the wealthy began making a comeback in popularity. Vegetables during the previous century had been considered peasant food and meat the food of the wealthy. Onions were one of a select few vegetables that had duel status. They were used to flavor meat dishes and as an individual dish.
Cookbooks and recipes from mid to late 1700’s list several different varieties of onions. They are large Spanish onions, common white onions, Mederia white onions and high red, round hard onions. Amelia Simmons makes several comments on onions. Large onions are cheapest, small onions are softest and have the best taste, red onions are best.
In an English cookbook from 1597 there is a recipe “To Boile Onions.” This recipe called for boiling onions, cut in quarters in water with raisins, sugar, salt and pepper. Before serving onions the broth was thickened with egg yolks mixed in vinegar. Recipe suggests serving in a pot or on soppes (sic). It also, adds a poached egg can be placed on top. In Amelia Simmons 1796 cookbook this term “to boile” is applied to a variety of vegetables that are boiled in water and served with herbs or butter. What is missing from the list of boiled vegetables are onions. Boiled onions show up in a 1753 English cookbook under soups. This cookbook was in the possession of a woman in one of the American colonies. The recipe was called King’s Soup. This recipe is similar to our present day boiled onions. It calls for boiling onions sliced very thin in a small amount of water until partially tender, adding milk, butter and blades of mace, bring back to a boil and finish cooking. The soup is finished off by adding egg yolks to thicken the soup, salt and some fresh chopped parsley as a garnish. It was served over toast cut into small pieces. This particular recipe was written up in the Williamsburg Art of Cookery. For the New England area Mrs. Gardiner’s Family Receipts from 1763 Boston gives another version of onion soup. Her recipe calls for cooking onions in a milk and water broth. To the milk and water broth she added chicken broth, salt and pepper. To thicken the soup a grated loaf of stale bread was added. She added asparagus or cooked spinach as a garnish. One hundred years later, the Buckeye Cookbook of 1883 gives a recipe for Boiled Onions as a vegetable dish. It calls for washing and peeling onions, and cooking them in boiling water. The boiling water is changed several times. Another method is to add milk to the water about half an hour before they are finished cooking. In a circa 1920 Fannie Farmer cookbook, The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, the boiled onion recipe clearly states, “Cook one hour or until soft, but not broken.” Here is the first reference to cooking whole onions.
“To boile onions” has changed little from four hundred years ago. Cooks learned various ways of coping with an onion’s sharp fiery, strong taste, and unpleasant odor. Water that was used to cook the onions in was changed several times. Others found out milk added to cooking water took the sharpness out of the onion’s taste. By the late 19th century it was found a small piece of red pepper (sic hot pepper) aided in getting rid of the unpleasant odor.
Onions have remained a vegetable considered worthy of cooking as a separate dish for centuries.
For a more authentic dish try adding a couple of egg yolks to thicken broth, garnishing it with chopped parsley. Going back a bit further in history to the Pilgrims era, omit the milk and add a little sugar, raisins and pepper.
Boiled Onions Recipe (adapted for modern tastes)
Choose as many small yellow or white onions as needed. Wash and cut root end off, make a cross-cut in the bottom (+) or pierce with a fork, cut top end off and peel off dry outer skin layers carefully so as not to cut into skin layers below. Place in a sauce pan and add an inch of water and a ¼ cup of milk. Bring to a boil and then simmer for twenty minutes. Pour onions into a colander to discard water and milk. Place back in sauce pan and add milk to cover or as much as you think you will use. To this add salt and pepper to taste. Put back on heat and heat just until bubbles appear around edges. Simmer for another fifteen minutes or until onions are tender.