Cipollini onions are smaller than conventional yellow, red or white cooking onions. In fact, the word cipollini translated from Italian means “little onion.” Although its name is Italian, cipollini onions are used in a range of cuisines and dishes and are tasty eaten raw in salads or slowly cooked to release their natural sweetness.
The small, slightly flattened onions have colors that vary from light to dark yellow and red, diameters between 1 to 4 inches and typically weigh between 1 and 3 oz. They have thin skins, comparable to shallots, that cling to the flesh. Choose cipollini onions free of cuts or blemishes and with sprouts less than a half inch in length. Abrasions in the onion skin will make it quickly dry out and deteriorate, and longer sprouts indicate age and a bitter tasting interior.
Cipollinis have sweet flavors that mellow further upon braising or roasting. Although some consumers believe the sweet taste of onions is based on natural sugar content, pyruvic acid determines the sharpness or sweetness of onions. Its levels are low in cipollinis, so their taste is comparable to that of Walla Walla sweet onions, although slightly more pungent.
Since the skin of cipollinis is so thin and clingy, they are harder to peel than conventional onions. For easier peeling, blanch them in barely boiling water in a medium-size saucepan for about 1 1/2 minutes. Pour the onions into a colander and let them cool and drain until they can be easily handled. Cut off the root and give the skin on the body of the onion a quick firm twist. It should easily break away from the onion flesh and leave the sprout end intact, resulting in little waste. Depending on how you are using them in recipes, cipollinis can be left whole or halved lengthwise.
Besides adding zesty flavor to salads, cipollini onions are excellent candidates for roasting or caramelizing. Their low levels of pyruvic acid help them quickly develop natural sugars when exposed to heat through oven or stove-top roasting in a pat of butter. The caramelized end product is soft and so tender it almost instantly melts on the palate. Cipollinis are also good for pickling, add rich flavors to stews and roasted meats and make a tasty side dish when cooked until tender and glazed with high quality balsamic vinegar.