Califonia Bountiful

Peeling back the layers in an onion's life

Fresh, frozen, canned, pickled or dehydrated, they bring smiles to everyone who eats them.

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They're used in just about every cuisine imaginable--from a Mexican fiesta to an Asian stir-fry to the all-American BBQ, They bring smiles to everyone who eats them and tears to everyone who prepares them.

They're onions. And the Salinas Valley is where many of them get their start. Think growing onions is easy? Well think again. Get ready to peel back the many, many layers of in the life of an onion.

More than 135 countries grow onions, and here in the United States, onion consumption has risen more than 50 percent in the last 15 years.

Whether you like your onions fresh, frozen, canned, pickled or in dehydrated forms, this is where the first layer in the life of an onion starts: at the Gills Onion farm, in the fertile fields of Salinas. The salad bowl of the world isn't just for leafy greens anymore--it is also the starting point for onions to begin their venture to a dinner table near you.

From the fields, they are harvested, graded and sorted. Some are put into cold storage and some continue their life cycle to a processing facility more than 250 miles away in sunny Southern California.

"Well, Gills onions first got started in 1983. It's been about 25 years and I started peeling onions for our first customer, La Victoria. We started growing peppers for La Victoria and they wanted to go from dehydrated onions to fresh-cut onions and we thought we could get in and do that," said owner Steve Gill.

Today, the folks at Gills peel and cut more than 5,000 truckloads of onions a year at their state-of-the-art facility in Oxnard, which is good news to chefs like Scott LaCrosse at the Basil's by the Lake Restaurant, located at the Radisson Hotel in Sacramento.

"Onions are very large. About 60 percent of our menu has onions in it, either in recipes or in raw form or cooked form," Lacrosse said.

Onions have become the flavor backbone of Scott's culinary repertoire. In most cases, they add just a little kick of flavor without a lot of fat. Depending on the variety, an onion can be sharp and spicy or mild and sweet. From the popular French onion soup to Scott's signature dish--a skirt steak with caramelized onions and Gorgonzola cheese--onions aren't just an afterthought, they are a necessity.

"Although I may shed a few tears when I work with them, they are well worth it. I don't know what I would do without them!" LaCrosse said.

For more information about Gills onions, visit

For more information about Basil's by the Lake, visit

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