Have you been cooking with the right type of onion? 

By Ally Sorrells
Updated: July 11, 2019

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of the produce section staring at onions and wondering which type you need for fresh salsa? Or perhaps which ones are best to caramelize? It even becomes hazy when you have red onions on hand but your recipe calls for yellow. 

To help with these all-too-common dilemmas, we tapped the pros in our test kitchen to clear things up. We turned to author and chef Robin Bashinksy and Food & Wine’s senior food editor and author, Mary-Frances Heck, to get the scoop on onions.

Here are seven common onions you can pretty much find at any grocery store, and what they’re best used for. 

But, First, What Is an Onion?

As an allium—like shallots, garlic, and scallions—onions are classified as a vegetable (hurrah!) Their bulbs store nutrients to ensure the plant’s survival, making them very nutrient-dense veggies. Onions are low in calories, but high in fiber, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. And they act as a prebiotic to feed the good bacteria in your gut for better overall health. Talk about a powerhouse veg! 

How to Choose the Right Type of Onion in Recipes

Though most alliums are known for their flavor-enhancing abilities in dishes, they aren’t all created equal. And you can’t always swap one type of onion for another (unless you want to drastically change the taste of your food!) Here’s how to use every type of allium like a pro.

Shallots 

Great cooked or raw, these guys are surprisingly versatile. Use uncooked shallots for a mellow and sweet flavor in our favorite vinaigrette or fried and sprinkled on soup, salad, noodle dishes, and more! Aside from adding a nice flavor or satisfying crunch, shallots are also fantastic when roasted (like in this beautiful roasted chicken). 

Cipollini Onions

Larger than pearl onions, but smaller and flatter than the onion you probably have sitting on your kitchen counter, cipollini onions are best when cooked. They “become super sweet, creamy, and have a depth of umami to them when their cooked” says Heck. Although they are great in an agrodolce or as a side dish, they are a bit more sturdy when cooked than pearl onions. So, we love to throw them in our Classic Beef Pot Roast for a deep umami taste.

Pearl Onions

These guys can be a little tricky to peel, but they are worth the extra attention. Although elegant enough to stand alone as a side dish, pearl onions are also delicious in almost any sauce (you could even try swapping out shallots for pearl onions in our favorite mushroom sauce!) If you’re not up for the challenge to peel all the little pearl onions before tackling dinner, frozen ones won’t disappoint. 

Related: How to Peel Pearl Onions

Sweet Onions

The mildest and sweetest of the bunch (hence the name), sweet onions are best to use when you’re looking for a slight onion flavor that won’t overpower your dish. Not particularly sturdy, they will turn to mush if they are cooked too high or for too long. We suggest sauteeing them for 2-3 minutes before throwing them together with some fresh tomatoes, basil, salt, and pepper for an easy pasta sauce, or using them in our favorite Szechuan Chicken Stir-Fry

White Onions

If you love Mexican food, this is your go-to onion. With a bite that doesn’t linger for too long, they add an onion-y brightness without overpowering other flavors. White onions are delicious when used raw—especially in salsa, salads, or sprinkled on tacos as a garnish.

Yellow Onions

Deemed as a “good general use onion” by Bashinsky, their flavor profile falls right between that of sweet and red onions. The relatively high starch content of these workhorse onions means they are able to withstand high and long cooking times without falling apart. Yellow onions are ideal for flavorful dishes that have to cook for a while—such as Vegetarian Bolognese or Caramelized Sherry Onions

Red Onions

Often eaten raw, these onions have a bit of a punch that can stand their ground in strongly flavored dishes. If you’re looking for a bit of a kick (and color), their peppery flavor profile makes them the perfect addition to your favorite salsa or fresh salad. Since they do have such a pungent flavor, you can even toss them on the grill without worrying about the smoky goodness overpowering their onion tang. But don’t stop there! Cooked red onions mellow out and become super sweet. Let them mingle with oil for a few minutes in a frying pan for a salad topper that will liven up your healthy greens with sweet flavor and beautiful color.  

The Bottom Line

With varied flavor profiles and ability to withstand heat, it is important to know the difference between onions. Now that you know the best application for each type of onion, you can take charge in the kitchen and confidently decide whether or not you should run to the grocery store to pick up a different type before tackling a new dish! 

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