Question: What makes a Vidalia onion different from other onions?

Considering that we're in the midst of the sweet Vidalia season, it's a good time to ask. Simply speaking, what makes Vidalias different from other onions is the ratio of sugar to acid. Whereas most onions have a sugar content of about 7 percent and are high in sulfuric acid, Vidalia onions have a whopping 12 percent sugar and an extremely low amount of sulfuric acid. What most people don't know is that Vidalia onions were a happy accident.

Onions (or "Allium cepa") are related to lilies and have been documented as being used by humans for food since prehistoric times. Vidalia onions, however, are a more recent development, taking root in 1931 in Toombs County, Ga. When farmer Mose Coleman planted the "Yellow Granex" species of onion on his Georgia plantation, he expected a pungent yield. What he discovered during harvest was an exceedingly sweet onion with high moisture and a snappy taste, but his large, pale yellow onions were a hard sell to the folks in Vidalia. Luckily, the small town in the southeast part of the state served as a busy crossroads for several main highways, and he marketed them at a roadside stand as a specialty item.

Eventually, Coleman was earning top dollar for his discovery, so other Depression-afflicted farmers jumped on the opportunity, and a regional specialty was born. Ever since, Vidalias have been available late April through mid-July, when fans snatch them up to satisfy their seasonal frenzy. In 1990, Georgia's state legislature even declared them the official state vegetable.

Without getting too scientific, researchers have since realized that what makes a Vidalia taste like a Vidalia is the "terroir" – a unique combination of soil and weather conditions in a particular region that leaves a unique stamp on an agricultural product. In the same way that the Burgundy region in France has designated certain grape hybrids and growing areas to produce their famous wines, the state of Georgia has marked 13 counties (and parts of seven others) as official growing sites for Vidalias.

These delicate onions can be stored only briefly; a prolonged shelf life is about four months. The official Vidalia onion board ( recommends tying them in the legs of pantyhose and hanging in a well-ventilated area, or wrapping them in newspaper and storing in the coolest part of the fridge. The industry has started to preserve them using technology taken from the apple industry, but they are their most sublime during the peak of the season – which is right now! Grab a 5-pound bag and try some of these personally tested recipes:

Caramelized Vidalias With Smoked Spanish Paprika

1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium Vidalia onions, sliced into 1/8-inch half-moons
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (preferably the bittersweet variety)
1/4 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste

• Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat, then add the butter and olive oil. When the butter melts and foam begins to subside, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to color – about 15 minutes.

• Add sugar, salt, paprika and thyme, stirring well to coat the onions. Cook until a deep golden color develops – about 20 more minutes. Adjust heat, if necessary.

• Off the heat, stir in the sherry vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste.

• Can be stored in an airtight container for up to seven days. Serve over a grilled pork chop, or throw over a block of cream cheese for a quick appetizer.

Vidalia, Fennel and Orange Tossed in Citrus Vinaigrette

2 fennel bulbs, tops trimmed and reserved
1 large Vidalia onion
2 oranges, peeled and skins reserved
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

• Slice fennel bulbs and Vidalias about 1/4-inch thick; section oranges by cutting flesh away from thin inner skin. Toss them all together in a medium bowl.

• Whisk mustard, vinegar and salt in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in olive oil.

• Zest about 1/4 teaspoon of the orange peel and mix into dressing. Add salt and pepper to taste.

• Toss the dressing over the vegetable mixture until lightly coated. Chop some of the reserved fennel tops and sprinkle over the salad.

Vidalia Sauce Soubise

This classic French sauce is great on pasta or over eggs and toast. I have substituted Vidalia onions for the classic white globe onions, which adds a subtle sweetness, along with mildly assertive pungency.

2 Vidalia onions
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 garlic clove, minced
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons white flour
2 cups milk, slightly warmed
1/2 cup Gruyere cheese
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

• Boil onions in salted water until soft. Remove and puree in a blender until smooth. Set aside.

• Heat butter in a medium saucepan until foam starts to subside. Add garlic and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

• Add flour and whisk until butter and flour are incorporated. Cook for one or two minutes until mixture becomes bubbly. Slowly whisk in warm milk. Bring to a boil, whisking continuously until the mixture is a smooth, thick sauce. Remove from heat.

• Immediately stir in cheeses and pureed onion. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Feel free to share your Vidalia recipes with me at [email protected].

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