I have been growing onions as one of my main crops this year. Finally, over the past few days, they’ve been showing signs that they are ready to be harvested. Onions can last about 7 days in the ground once they’re ripe, so I tried to time the harvest to avoid the abundance of stunning rainstorms we’ve had this week (I love watching the rain).
Since I lifted such a good amount of onions from the raised bed this week, it seemed like a good time to talk about what we actually do with them after they’ve been dug up. Onions are very easy to grow and they tolerate very poor soils, as I’ve learned this year from experimenting with where I planted them.
You don’t need to make much effort to grow onions, they are zero-maintenance, and not especially vulnerable to any of the major garden pests. Once they’re ready to harvest (when the stalks go floppy and fall over), it’s also quite easy to store them so you can have a decent supply of onions throughout the winter.
Onions are a good choice for self-sufficiency as they can be used to make French onion soup which is a traditional meal to help fight off colds during the cooler part of the year. They can also be used as a very versatile way to add depth and flavor to a variety of dishes such as spaghetti bolognese or lasagne (aka lasagna in the US).
You can plant onions in Spring or Autumn but the difference between harvest times seems to only be 1-2 months so your decision to plant autumn onions should depend on whether you have any other overwintering crops (such as broccoli) that need the space or whether you need to replenish the soil (such as by planting green manure crops e.g. clover).
Onions require regular rotation so don’t just plant them in one area every season or you’ll mess up your soil.
You can just store them in a cool, dry, dark (very dark) place on wire racks and they will last a couple of weeks, just like store-bought onions.
However, if you’re homesteading, you probably want your onions to last a bit longer than that, because you’ve probably grown rather a lot of them, to see you through winter. So here are three easy ways you can get them to last longer:
Canning works best for tiny onions. To can onions, you need to take care to treat the onions so they stay preserved. You can’t just put them in a can with some brine and expect them to store.
First, you need to peel the onions. Soak them in boiling water for 20 seconds, drain, rinse with cold water and the skins should come away easily. They should be showing their white all the way around the onion before you start preserving them, and they should be clean.
Next, place them on a plate or on a tray and sprinkle the onions with salt. Every onion needs to be salted so don’t pile them too high. Cover with Saran wrap (cling film) and leave to work for about 24 hours.
The next day, rinse the onions well to remove all the salt, and put them in a big glass canning jar. Cover the onions with hot vinegar, leaving the minimum air gap possible, put the lid on and seal the jar using a pan of boiling water.
Let the onions mature for at least 6 weeks before eating.
If you have a freezer and a reliable electricity supply, freezing your onions probably makes the most sense. It’s also the easiest method for preserving onions.
Simply peel your onions, chop them (I tend to dice mine) and put them into freezer bags. Write the date on the freezer bag and seal, then place into the freezer. The freezer will smell… pungent for about twelve hours, until the onions have reached the correct temperature and fully frozen.
The beauty of freezing onions specifically is that, if your electricity supply is disrupted later down the line, you can always remove them from the freezer, defrost them, and dry them following the steps for method 3, below. Even with a prolonged powercut, frozen onions can be easily saved.
You can easily dry onions using a dehydrator and they will last a very long time. Drying your onions removes all the water from them, so there’s nowhere for bacteria to live or reproduce. You can then reconstitute the onions at a later date by soaking them in boiling water before cooking with them. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your dehydrator as temperatures and timings may vary between machines.
If you don’t have a dehydrator, you could lay out the diced onions in a thin layer on baking paper on a big oven tray, and heat at 65 degrees Celsius (150 degrees F) for 4-5 hours. It should be obvious when they’re done, they’ll have turned papery.
Once your onions are fully dehydrated, decant them into a storage container such as a Tupperware-style sandwich box (the ones with the clips around the sides are especially good) or a sealable ziplock bag. Write today’s date somewhere on your container of onions so you know when you dried them.
So those are my three very easy methods for preserving your onions throughout the winter. Now I just need to figure out if there’s any use for the onion stalks, or whether I should just throw them into the compost.
How will you preserve your onions? Do you have a method I haven’t thought of? Let me know in the comments!