Onions are everywhere. They grow all over the world, so they’re eaten all over the world. Onions lend a signature savory, sweet and sometimes delightfully sharp flavor to all kinds of dishes, cooked and raw.
Members of the allium family, there are dozens of varieties of onions. And each different size, shape and color has its own use and function in the kitchen. We’re covering the most common varieties of onions and how to use them in your own cooking.
These are the large, pale ones with papery, slightly yellowed skin. The flesh is white and very mild flavored. These tend to blend into the background when cooked, so they make a nice base to more flavorful items. They’re also mild enough to eat raw on salads, Gazpacho and in sandwiches.
Sweet onions are technically also white onions. However, they have a higher level of sugar, which makes them, you guessed it: sweeter! They’re sometimes called Vidalia or Maui onions, and they have a slightly more yellow tint than plain old white onions. These are a bit stronger tasting than white onions and lend themselves well as a flavor base to bolder dishes like chili, pasta sauces and stews.
Moving up the flavor scale, yellow onions are sharper than white and sweet onions. They’re yellowish and often have a flatter shape than round Vidalia’s. These ones are best cooked, which mellows out their strong allium flavor in place of a mild, caramelized sweetness. Opt for yellow onions when you’re caramelizing or roasting. Yellow onions are delicious caramelized on top of a puff pastry tart, or tossed into pasta.
While they can be eaten raw, red onions are often too sharp-tasting for many. However, they do have a beautiful purple color that adds a pop to raw salads, dips and soups, like this light potato salad. If you do want to serve them raw, do your guests a favor and take out some of the bite by soaking the chopped onions in water for about 10 minutes. Cooking red onions dilutes a lot of the color, so raw or even pickled is really the best way to celebrate them.
Also called scallions, green onions are long, thin and delicate. They’re delicious raw and cooked. In fact, the white, root end of scallions has a much stronger flavor than the more mild green tops. You can divide the whites and greens up in your recipes. Then cook the white ends to reduce some of the flavor, and use the pretty green ends as a raw garnish. Try it with this recipe for easy Napa cabbage fritters.
Onions’ smaller, cuter cousin, shallots pack a lot of allium flavor into a small package. They’re more concentrated than large onions, so a little goes a long way. And you don’t want to be eating shallots raw. Instead, try them sautéed, roasted and caramelized. You can replace cooked onions with shallots in most recipes for a bolder flavor.