The Vidalia onion is a special cultivar of sweet onion which is raised exclusively in the American South. In fact, onions cannot legally be labeled as “Vidalia onions” in the United States unless they come from a specific region of the state of Georgia, thanks to a ruling from the Department of Agriculture. These onions are famously used in Southern cuisine, and they are also popular in some other parts of the United States, along with the sweet Maui onion, grown in Hawaii.
Vidalias emerged by accident in Southeastern Georgia in the 1930s, when farmers were struggling to find a new cash crop. They began growing yellow granex onions, but discovered that the crop was sweet, rather than hot, as expected. By the 1940s, onions from this region of Georgia were famous for their mild flavor, which, as it turns out, is created by the lack of sulfur in the soil. In 1986, the legislature of Georgia passed the Vidalia Onion Act, confining labeling to specific counties, and in 1990, it became the State Vegetable of Georgia.
Several onion cultivars have been crossed to produce the modern Vidalia onion. The result is a sweet yellow onion which is famously juicy and flavorful without the harsh bite and eye-watering sting most people associate with onions. Producers of Vidalia onions follow strict guidelines to ensure that their crop meets the state standard, and these onions command a high price at market.
Unlike many onions, the Vidalia onion does not store well. These onions need to be used quickly or they will start to soften and rot. As a result, consumers tend to place a premium on them when they are available in the late summer, and many people try to grow their own, to evade the high prices. While the cultivars used to make Vidalias can be grown almost anywhere, the results will not necessarily be sweet, because the flavor is dependent on the soil chemistry.
These onions are sweet enough to be eaten raw, with some people eating them like apples. Vidalias can be sliced and added to sandwiches, salads, and other dishes. They also take well to roasting, grilling, and frying, with cooking deepening the naturally sweet flavor. These sweet onions can be used in all sorts of creative ways, from onion chutney to grilled onions designed to top cheeseburgers.
When selecting a Vidalia onion in the store, look for an onion which feels firm and heavy for its size, indicating that it is fresh and juicy. Avoid onions with signs of mildew or mold, and use your onion within a week for the best flavor.