Who the Hell Uses Onion Juice?


By John Thorne (http://www.outlawcook.com/)

The other day I was leafing through a vintage edition of The Fannie Farmer Boston Cooking School Cookbook looking for American chop suey (a story for another time), when my eye fell on a recipe with an ingredient list that included a “few drops onion juice” — and suddenly I was a child again, poking around in my grandmother’s kitchen.

It was an odd little room. The family lived on the bottom floor of a large duplex, built by my grandfather in the 1920s in Wollaston, on Boston’s South Shore. Long before I came along, my grandmother purchased a piano and turned the dining room into the piano room. Thus, the kitchen became the dining room and the adjoining pantry became the kitchen. It was just wide enough to hold the kitchen sink at one end and the gas stove at the other. (The refrigerator sat in the dining room.) Between them ran a narrow counter and, above and below it, storage shelves for cookware and food. This was the kitchen in which Nana prepared meals for a family of five children (my mother the only girl).

How she did it I’ll never know, partly because by the time I was old enough to attend to such things, rheumatoid arthritis had laid her low. However, in those days lots of kitchen shelves were not a necessity: a grocery order was a phone call away, and the milkman and the Cushman’s Bakery man came to the back door. (In fact, they came right through it, shouting a welcome as they did.) I do know that Nana was a good cook if a plain Yankee one, proud of her baking and willing to go the extra distance to give plain fare a touch of the special.

Even so, she required little in the way of seasonings. I still recall those yellow rectangular tins with the Stickney & Poor brand name spelled out in bright red script: clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, mustard, and black pepper. Apart from a box of Bell’s poultry seasoning and a bottle of vanilla extract, the only other thing I remember is Howard’s Onion Juice, in its oddly elongated bottle.

As a child, I had no interest in cooking, and not even a little boy could have fitted in the kitchen when Nana was at work. However, when I learned to read, I found the act so thrilling that I practiced this new skill on every label that came my way. When I parsed out the words “onion juice” I was deeply shocked. These were two words that simply did not belong together. Some juices, like grape juice, were rare treats, other juices — apple, orange, tomato — were a regular part of my life (all, by the way, poured out of cans), but … onion juice?  Did Grampa and Nana secretly drink the stuff? I never dared ask, but I never forgot, either.

I put aside the search for American chop suey aside, lost in contemplation. Onion juice. I couldn’t remember it called for in any other cookbook. Do people still cook with it? Can you even buy it? It took but a moment at the keyboard to answer those questions: Howard’s Onion Juice still exists. Amazon.com sells it by the case. And people were attesting to how glad they were to find it, how they needed it for their spaghetti sauce and sloppy joes, their salad dressing.

Well, there was no way I was going to order a case. Still, curiosity piqued, I decided to check out likely suspects here in Northampton (MA). First, I drove over to  Big Y, a local supermarket chain that prides itself on its New England roots, and poked around. But where should I look? On the spice shelves? Among the hot sauces? The gravy mixes? I finally asked one of the clerks. The query went up the management chain and came back down: “Never heard of it.”

I tried our local grocery, Serios; their next-door competitor, State Street Fruit; then on to Atkin’s Farm Stand (unlikely, you think, but I did leave there with a bottle of Spanish sherry vinegar, a jar of an organic Indian simmer sauce, and a little carton of red wine foundation sauce — impulse buying, my middle names). But, as to onion sauce, no, no, and no. I gave up and emailed Howard’s Foods for help. They kindly pointed out that both their onion and garlic juices were sold at our other local supermarket, Stop & Shop. I had, in fact, looked there, but had suffered input overload in front of the dazzling (if mostly meretricious) display of seasonings. I simply failed to see it.

Howard’s Onion Juice. The ingredient list is short and impeccable: onion juice, vinegar, salt. Despite a yelp of protest from my inner child, I take a nip straight from the bottle. (I had just finished eating a Greek salad and thought, “How could it hurt?”). It didn’t. Although the bottle claims that one teaspoon is equal to half an onion, Howard’s Onion Juice has none of that sharp-toothed bite of raw onion. In fact, it tastes sort of like onion breath smells — except now it’s in your own mouth and doesn’t go away.

A politer way of saying this is that tastes like juice extracted from a boiled onion, plus a zip of vinegar. Unfortunately, my whole goal when cooking onions is to fry out the juice, and with it that hint of skunk cabbage. Not that I mean to diss Howard’s product. I can see adding a splash to anything liquid (soups, stews, broths) that could use a hit of the vegetable’s simultaneously tasty and malodorous vibes. But, really, is that what onion juice is all about? I know old-time cooks held garlic at arms’ length. But they didn’t treat onions like that — and certainly not cooked onions. There had to be something more to the story — and to Nana’s cooking — than this.

Back I went to Fannie Farmer. We have twelve editions in our collection — not all of them, but most. Onion juice is there from the first, not poured from a bottle but made as needed right on the spot. In the original volume, you were instructed to get it by working the cut surface with a fine grater, but soon some culinary quick-wit discovered a much simpler method: “Cut a slice from the root end of the onion; scrape the juice with the edge of a teaspoon.”

Try it. What you get isn’t so much juice as a thickish pulp, and it’s charged with flavor, right up there (almost) with finely minced raw garlic. As soon as I dipped a finger in it, I had to mix it up with some butter and eat it on toast. I surely breathed fire for an hour afterwards, a small price to pay for something so deliciously potent. This stuff is definitely not for kids.

That naked power also explains why it was often added by the drop — and added it surely was. In the 1921 edition of Fannie Farmer, it is used to add savor to a lobster and oyster ragout; a savory of chopped chicken liver and hard-boiled egg; Hamburg steak; Eggs à la Caracas, scrambled eggs with the odd but tasty sounding addition of tomatoes and smoked chipped beef; a host of stuffings … the list goes on and on. (It is also used uncooked — as see this simple corn salad.) In other words, it was deployed where we today would most likely add a touch of garlic.

Howard’s Onion Juice appeared on the market in the early fifties, around the time I was learning to read. Consequently, that bottle, when I first saw it, was a newly offered convenience. But it is the original scraped raw onion pulp that is the revelation. As with garlic, halfway measures can be worse than none at all. I’m already working up ways to put real onion juice to work, from meatballs to clam fritters to onion (as in garlic) bread. Somewhere, Nana is … what? Smiling? Aghast? Whatever it is, it’s nice to be in the kitchen with her.

(Copyright © John Thorne 2010)

Posted in American


  1. noracarrington said...

    Thanks for the memories. I was a student at Smith in the 70s and remember State Street and Serio’s with great fondness. I also had until relatively recently a bottle of the Howard’s garlic juice. It had only one purpose in my kitchen, as an addition to what I call "tomato gamish," a mascerated mess of the ripest tomatoes with basil chiffonade, stolen shamelessly from Nora Ephron’s _Heartburn_. Raw garlic was too raw, if added in amounts sufficient to give the cold summer salad/pasta topping enough garlic "oomph." A few drops of the garlic juice was plenty garlicky, without the unpleasant bitterness of lots of chopped raw garlic. As summer is coming soon, I should see if I can find it here in Seattle.

  2. DonLucito said...

    I lived in Northern Ontario, Canada in the mid 80’s and I remember using both the garlic and onion juices from Howard once in a while when I needed just a dash of seasoning rapidly and was too lazy to use the fresh stuff. It was something useful to have in an emergency. I am not sure if my memory fails me, but I faintly remember another juice from them in the same bottle format, but for the life of me I can’t remember exactly what it might be.

  3. bananaanna said...

    I’ve heard of using onion juice in martinis & I’ve see it called for in a chowder recipe. Far & few in between, though !

  4. Jere Keefer said...

    My wife and I are active (good) cooks and have an extensive cookbook collection. I have been reviewing the cookbooks we don’t regularly use. A few days ago, I went through “The Complete Everyday Cookbook” compiled by Better Cooking Library. My edition is copyright 1971. I believe this is a collection from nine cookbooks issued by Ottenheimer Publishers and each copyrighted in 1964.
    I saw recipes using onion juice which I was not familiar with. My wife is, but said she has not seen it in years.
    One recepie is for Crusty Baked Delmarva Chicken which I want to try. It is on P 303.

  5. vera said...

    I use onion juice that I make myself using a juicer. I soak raw meat, chicken and even lamb in it overnight in the refrigerator before cooking the meat for 1 or two nights. I also add citric acid or lemons and salt and whatever spices I want to the onion juice and it makes all the difference in how the chicken/steak/lamb tastes when you cook it the next day. I feel like it takes away the smell sometimes meat has that sort of “bloody” smell…I’m interested in more recipe’s using onion juice if you have heard of any.

    • Maddie White said...

      I have a recipe for Seafood Cocktail Sauce (as in Shrimp Cocktail) that calls for 1/2 teaspoon of Onion Juice. I got the recipe from a cookbook in a collection that my mother purchased from the paperboy back in the early 60’s. This is the best sauce I’ve ever had. It compares to the one used by Ruth Chris Steak House – only better, I think. However, I just ran out of the last drop of Howard’s Onion Juice and I cannot find it anywhere here in Greenville, SC area. So sad. 🙁 I really don’t want to have to make my own after all these years of using Howard’s.

  6. Mark said...

    I was just now digging (finally) into a copy of Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking and the process for onion juice came up. Onion juice? So here we are, and while Mr Thorne only mentions Howard’s product, Ms Given declares commercial juice is “available everywhere”.

    Her recipe: juice it on a juicer, like an orange. Then lay down wax paper, then cheesecloth on top. Then grate the onion onto the cloth, wrap it and squeeze hard to catch it on the wax paper.

    I’m just finishing up making mushroom ketchup for the first time in my salad spinner, but this may be my next project.

  7. Maggie Tibbetts said...

    I have Rene Verdn’s “The Whitehouse Cookbook.” He was President Kennedy’s
    Chef. So I have had that cookbook for 50 years. His Cocktail Sauce
    Cordeau call’s for onion juice. It is a marvelous sauce for seafood.

  8. Ralph Bush said...

    I use both garlic juice and onion juice to inject, with other spices, into the turkey for my Cajun deep fried turkey. I use Howard’s, but it is only available in a few stores in my area.

  9. donnajohnsonedwards@gmail.com said...

    I too had been searching for Onion Juice with absolutely no luck. We have a very old recipe for Tomato Aspic that calls for it and we have been trying to reproduce Grandma’s Aspic without much success. We ended up running an onion over a grater to get a few drops … glad to see we can find it somewhere!

  10. Sonia Gestner said...

    My husband uses onion, garlic & lemon juice in his fish marinade, it’s an old receipe handed down from my uncle. He marinades salmon we catch on the great lakes and then smokes it (yum yum) can’t beat it! Here in central Wisconsin the only place we can find onion and garlic juice is online. We have not tried it in other things but after reading all the replies I think we will start adding it to some of our dishes.

  11. Drew Reed said...

    I had fond memories of a fruit salad I used to eat at a friend’s house. When I told her it was the best I’d ever had, his mother told me back then that the secret ingredient was onion juice. I assumed she was pulling my leg – she does have a good sense of humor after all. Years later she sent me the recipe upon request. For a rather large bowl of fruit salad, the dressing has, among other ingredients, 1 tablespoon of onion juice. Tht seemed like a lot but I made it for my family’s Independence Day celebration this year and it was a huge success – many requests for the recipe. I got the bottle of Howards at a local “high end” grocery store. But am thinking I’ll try the grating and straining method next time just to judge the difference for myself.

  12. Victoria lummus said...

    Howard’s onion juice is the secret ingredient in my Poppy Seed recipe. It’s available at Kroger’s.

  13. Beth said...

    Great Lakes/Midwest store chain, Meijer’s, carries Reese brand Onion and Garlic Juices. Trying them in following the FODMAP diet needed by a family member. Happy to have an alternate to ‘no real onion, no real garlic’ cooking restrictions.

  14. Donna Foster said...

    My imagination roamed one day, and with that came the decision to juice onions, probably had too much on hand. Some of the members of my family dislike onions. I juice Vidalia, purple, scallions, yellow onion and even garlic juice. Currently I use them in soups, stews, braises, sauces and whatever my creative mind tells me to do. I juice them using an electric juicer and the residue I use to make stock with allspice, juniper berries, herbs and vegetables. I marinate poultry in the juices as well, and remarkably as one individual commented it sure does take away the bloody smell that meat has. Does a better job than vinegar, including balsamic and citrus juice. just juice some baby ones this morning and then poached the rest. Gives your dishes an exceptional flavor. Try it. Warning: the house will be reeking with the fumes from the onions but just open the window and it will be gone. Enjoy,

  15. MM Greene said...

    Howard’s Onion Juice is a must-have for me because raw onion makes my tongue go numb (a real handicap back when I reviewed restaurants for a living). The Howard’s recipe with its touch of vinegar marinates the raw onion just enough to make it tolerable for me, and a few drops add a hint of onion flavor to sandwiches. So, at least in this case, that’s why onion juice.

  16. A friend gave me a recipe for salad dressing (since lost) that adds onion and garlic juice along with sugar and other ingredients. Is anyone familiar with this recipe. If so, please send it or publish it here. Thanks.

  17. Bert Stauff said...

    My husband teaches at Georgia Christian University in Atlanta. Students are Korean. They gave him a box of onion juice packets for drinking.
    I am on the hunt for recipes using onion juice. This blog helped.
    I would suggest finding a Korean community and shop for onion juice for those seeking this product.

  18. Lana Montgomery said...

    I have used onion juice for years in my cheese ball recipe and it has gotten really hard to find. I finally found it last year at Kroger and will be trying that again. Thanks for information. At least I can order it!

  19. curt kneisley said...

    Your descriptions evoke memories. Born in 1952, I was a military dependent from birth and thus moved a lot. Since I even then liked eating, it has long provided reading interest. I remember my grandfather fishing using a plug he would make from wetted cereal such as Wheaties and then he would work in either onion or garlic juice to fish for crappie mostly. He did not like to eat them but he loved the catch. And the fish steadily loved his plugs!

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