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What is a Pearl Onion?

Alex Tree
Updated May 16, 2024
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A pearl onion (Allium cepa), also called a boiler, baby onion, or button onion, is a small and round vegetable related to leeks and the bulb onion. This type of tree onion forms clusters of spherical and whitish bulbs that are often pickled when they are about one inch (two and half cm) or less in diameter. The edible bulbs can also be red, brown, or yellow in color and have a pungent odor and mild taste. These onions are cultivated around the world and used in American, Asian, and European cuisine.

There are multiple varieties of pearl onions. Most of them belong to the species Allium cepa, but are named and marketed according to the place where they are cultivated. Some pearl onions sold are just regular onion bulbs picked while they are still small enough to look like true pearl onions. A separate species of pearl onion, Allium ampeloprasum, has a bulb formed from a single leaf and can be found in Germany and the Netherlands. Another variety is the flat-shaped cepollini, cultivated in Italy, which has yellowish flesh and thin, paper-like skin.

Cultivation consists of planting the seeds tightly and densely, and then harvesting them when they reach the desired size. They are planted closely to purposefully stunt their growth. On average, seeds weighing a total of 80 to 110 pounds (36 to 50 kg) are planted in one acre (4,000 square meters) of land. Pearl onions can also be propagated by planting bulblets grown during the previous year. It will take almost two years for a pearl onion tree to produce bulbs sweet enough for sale.

During harvesting, pearl onions are undercut to separate the roots. The whole bed of the plant is hoisted, and then the bulbs are transferred in special conveyors designed for small onions. They are stored in open areas or cold storage in warehouses and arranged in shallow piles to minimize humidity, which will speed decay. At home, they can be stored at room temperature just before cooking.

Pearl onions are typically pickled and used as a condiment and garnish to make a cocktail onion. They are often served as side dishes and can be added to soups, sauces, and dishes like succotash and omelet. The tiny size and mild flavor of a pearl onion makes it ideal for preparing relish. It is best to boil the bulb and then cool it with ice water so that the skin can be peeled more easily.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Alex Tree
By Alex Tree
Andrew McDowell is a talented writer and DelightedCooking contributor. His unique perspective and ability to communicate complex ideas in an accessible manner make him a valuable asset to the team, as he crafts content that both informs and engages readers.
Discussion Comments
By honeybees — On Sep 30, 2011

I buy pearl onions more for holiday meals than any other time of the year. I have a recipe for caramelized pearl onions that I like to make ahead of time and and reheat when I am ready to use.

I must admit that I take the easy way out, and buy a package of frozen pearl onions instead of using the fresh ones.

I have never priced the difference in the fresh vs the frozen, but I would rather pay a little bit more and have them ready to go instead of peeling them myself.

By LisaLou — On Sep 29, 2011

I like using pearl onions because they have such a mild flavor to them. Sometimes onions can be too strong and the taste is overpowering. With pearl onions you get the onion taste but in a milder form.

One disadvantage to them is if you are going to using several of them, it takes awhile to peel all of them.

If I am going to be using a lot of them at once, I will put them in some boiling water for a couple of minutes, drain them and put them in an ice bath to stop the cooking process.

Once they are cooled, I will cut off the root, the onion easily squeezes out and they are ready to use. I love adding them to homemade soups or using them in a stir fry.

By popcorn — On Sep 28, 2011

Does anyone know a good use for balsamic glazed pearl onions? Do you think they are best off added to something or on their own as a side dish?

I recently came across a recipe for the balsamic pearl onions in my cook book and am interested in trying them out. I have already tried adding basic pearl onions to my salads, and that has gone really well so far.

The store near my house sells bags of pearl onions really cheaply, and because of the low price I always end up with more than I can figure out what to do with. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

By lonelygod — On Sep 28, 2011

There are so many things that you can do with pearl onions if you come across them at your local grocery store. I love to use them in pork roast recipes because the pearl onions are a really attractive addition to the dish. Besides providing flavor they look pretty fantastic.

Another way you can enjoy your meal is by adding baked pearl onions to the mix. I usually just run a thin coating of olive oil over the onions and toss them into the oven until they start to get a golden hue. They are a nice addition to salads if you have guests that like onions, and are easy to make, so you can really get a way with a restaurant look without the time investment.

By Monika — On Sep 27, 2011

@sunnySkys - I think you should. I've had both kinds (and I like both kinds) but they do taste different.

My grandmother always uses pearl onions when she makes pot roast. She buys them raw though, she doesn't buy the pickled kind. I like it when she makes pot roast this way, because I feel like pearl onions have a much less strong flavor than the bigger onions.

By sunnySkys — On Sep 27, 2011

I had a drink that was garnished with a pearl onion recently. Now, I love onions. Love them! I pretty much like all kinds of onions equally. But for some reason I'd never had a pearl onion before.

I was pretty excited to eat it, and I saved it for last, after my drink was done. Well, lo and behold, I hated the taste! However, it's all making sense now. I am not a big fan of pickling, and I'm almost 100% sure the pearl onion I had was pickled.

Maybe I'll give cooked pearl onion another chance.

Alex Tree
Alex Tree
Andrew McDowell is a talented writer and DelightedCooking contributor. His unique perspective and ability to communicate complex ideas in an accessible manner make him a valuable asset to the team, as he crafts content that both informs and engages readers.
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