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Onions and garlic the magic duet for the deep ocean sailor

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What is the issue?
Onions and garlic are an ideal fresh food for long passages. However, they need a little attention to last and be at their best.

Why address this?
Fresh vegetables are a premium food on long passages, and onions and garlic are not only one of the longest-lasting veggies on a boat but their bold flavours usually make them the most important supporting ingredients to have aboard. They can be added to almost any tinned meal to add an element of freshness and to make the meal more tasty.

How to address this?
Onions and garlic are great long life vegetables that can magically transform cruising dishes and give them that most desired 'crunch' that becomes increasingly rare in deep ocean foods as land becomes a distant memory. They are both part of the Allium family that also includes chives, shallots, and leeks, and which contain substances that benefit your health in many ways.

Onions are believed to reduce the symptoms of bronchitis and the common cold, and they also can fight harmful bacteria. Garlic has both antibacterial and antifungal properties and it is believed to strengthen your immune system overall, making you less vulnerable to contracting infections. The American Institute for Cancer Research believes that Allium vegetables have properties that help you resist cancer.


Onions vary in colours shape, flavour and sizes, and are categorised as either spring/summer varieties or storage varieties. The Red onion is classified as a spring/summer variety as it has a thin protective layer whereas the yellow storage onions have multiple protective layers which allow them greater time to be stored and less chance of bruising.

Fresh onions are full of sugary juices and have a light covering of skin and are still alive. This means that it continues to respire and give off water, drying all the time. As onions cure, the 3 or 4 outer layers dry into papery wrappers and separate from the inner bulb. Pungent compounds replace sugars, and the necks at the top of the bulb come together to seal out moisture and microorganisms. This process seals in the well-dried onion with a crispy skin and juicy middle.

How long it will last is difficult to pinpoint because it depends upon when it was harvested, what type it is, and how it was stored before arriving at the store, and the temperature in your environment. They will last for 2 to 3 months in a cool environment between 0 and 4° Celsius, or a hot environment between 25 and 31° Celsius. In temperatures between 20 and 25° Celsius, the onion will have the shortest longevity. Within this range, the bacteria and fungi that form on onions are most active. Below and above this range, they remain inactive. High humidity is also detrimental as onions pick up moisture very easily which will lead to rot. If you are sailing in areas with high humidity it will be tricky to keep onions for a long time.


Properly stored, whole raw garlic has some more durability and can last for about 3 to 5 months.
Leaving the entire head or bulb of garlic whole and not breaking it apart is the best way to store fresh garlic. Once the whole garlic bulb is broken and you begin removing cloves from the garlic, its shelf life decreases quickly. Individual unpeeled cloves will only last for about 7-10 days, so make it a point to use it up first before breaking open a new head. Refrigeration is not recommended for garlic since that environment encourages the garlic to sprout.

Red Brown White and Purple Onions and Garlic
Photo: CC0


Both onions and garlic need a little attention to get the best out of them but it is well worthwhile. Here is a list of best practices when provisioning for deep ocean passages. Fortunately, they naturally cure themselves and being both parts of the Allium family can be stored together for the best results:

  • • Stock Up late: Leave the fresh vegetable purchase until the last shopping run so they have the best start.

  • • Select the best: Pick them by hand at the store if you can. Strong-flavored, pungent onions store best as the same chemicals that make onions pungent make them good keepers. There are both red and yellow storage onions; those extra-large, milder onions should be eaten fresh as they don’t store well.

  • • Remove packaging: Remove all plastic bags immediately as they reduce longevity by choking off vital air movement, trap in humidity and carry insects aboard.

  • • Check for damage: If you find any nicked, sliced, or bruised or with rotten spots or a soft texture, cut off the bad part and keep them separate eating them first.

  • • Store them far away from anything else: Onions and garlic give off-gas and will affect the flavour of food around them, it’s best they have their own space. A particularly fatal mistake is put onions and potatoes together as they require the same type of storage environment. However, the moisture and gases they give off cause chemical reactions that speed the spoilage of both.

  • • Keep them cool, dark and dry: Store onions and garlic in the coolest driest possible part of the vessel and screen them from any light. Try to keep the storage temperature even, fluctuating temperatures will encourage rotting and/or sprouting. In warmer temperatures, garlic will begin to sprout. A dry place that is completely dark is essential.

  • • Check and cull: Inspect them often to make sure the onions and garlic are not sprouting or developing soft spots. Remove and eat any damaged ones.

  • • Refrigeration: Refrigeration will keep short-dormancy onions longer, but it’s still best to eat them fresh and save your storage efforts for bulb onions and long-storing shallots.

  • • A week in the fridge chopped: Chopped raw onions will last 7 to 10 days in the refrigerator, garlic slightly less about 5 to 7 days. Store in covered airtight containers to avoid tainting the fridge.

  • • Freeze forever: If you have a freezer that goes down to 17°C (0°F) they will last forever. Just peel, then slice or chop the onions and garlic. Place in heavy-duty freezer bags, or wrap tightly in heavy-duty aluminium foil or plastic wrap. They will maintain their best quality for about 6 to 8 months but will remain safe beyond that time and be ready to go when you need them.

Onions that are spoiled will typically become soft and discoloured, and will often develop dark patches; discard any onions that have an off smell or appearance. The best approach is to sniff around for signs of trouble. When a stored onion goes bad, you will smell it long before you see it.

Garlic that is going bad will typically become soft and change colour from white to yellowish; green roots in the middle of the garlic clove are also an indication that the garlic is deteriorating in quality- these green roots are not harmful, but taste bitter and should be removed before cooking. To keep a partially used bud of garlic from shrivelling and drying out or from sprouting before it is used, peel all of the cloves of garlic and cover them with olive oil or vegetable oil. Store in a covered jar on the cupboard shelf. The garlic cloves can be minced or crushed in the garlic press and used like fresh garlic. The oil can also be used for flavouring.

A little extra attention paid to the onions and garlic when provisioning for deep ocean voyages will not incur any additional cost but will maximise a vessel's key fresh food stock and minimise wastage.

With thanks to:
Michael Harpur, Yacht Obsession.

How to cure onions

Storing Garlic

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