6 Types of Onions and How to Use Them
Many recipes from soups to savory pies call for an onion. Here's a simple guide to picking the right variety for every dish.
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Alliums (onions, garlic, leeks, scallions) are a staple in every home cook’s kitchen. Whether they’re tucked into a quiche or caramelized and folded into mac and cheese, onions add immense flavor to any dish. Choosing the right one for whatever you’re cooking will help you achieve the best (and most delicious) results. Here’s a simple guide to understanding what each type of onion has to offer.
If a recipe doesn’t specify what type of onion to use, your safest bet is a yellow onion. “Yellow onions are your standard cooking onion. I always reach for a yellow onion unless I have some other reason to reach for something else,” says Kim Reddin, the director of public and industry relations for the National Onion Association. “The yellows hold up extremely well over that process of caramelizing because it is a long, slow heat.” Try our simple technique to caramelize onions.
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Popular sweet onions include Vidalias, Walla Wallas and Mauis. “These well-known varieties have a pale yellow skin. The inside may look white but they are yellow,” says Reddin, who fields questions about onions as The Onionista. If you’re looking for an onion that tastes amazing raw in salads, relishes or chopped as a garnish, go for sweet onions. “They just have that mild onion flavor with a touch of sweetness that you can use in a number of things.” Try our tried-and-true recipe for Sweet Onion Pie.
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Red onions are ubiquitous on salads, sandwiches and other raw preparations partly because of their appealing deep-purple color. Reddin warns, however, “Red onions, specifically, can have a really peppery, spicy flavor to them.” This variety is sweetest from March to September. Red onions pair well with equally strong-flavored greens such as kale or arugula. Reddin also recommends red onions for roasting, grilling and pickling. Check out our Easy Orange and Red Onion Salad Recipe.
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White onions are commonly found in prepared salads (potato and macaroni salads, for instance) and traditionally in Mexican cuisine. “White onions can be strong but they tend to have less aftertaste,” Reddin says. Their slightly sweet taste adds to fresh salsas, guacamole, ceviche and tacos. They’re also commonly served up in barbecue establishments with a plate of meat, pickle and sides.
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Shallots have a mild onion flavor. These bulb-shaped alliums taste like a garlic-onion hybrid. In French cooking, shallots are used in vinaigrettes and sauces, as well as on top of steak. When a recipe calls for a shallot and you don’t have one, you can likely substitute another type of onion for it. Try our favorite Chicken Thighs with Shallots & Spinach recipe.
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These two-tone onions can be eaten cooked or raw. Scallions are popular in Chinese and Mexican cuisine. In Chinese cooking, scallions are used in stir-fries, soups, stews and braised dishes. Scallions or green onions have a milder flavor than regular onions. Use your scallions up in this Chinese Scallion Pancake.
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How to Purchase and Store Onions
Purchase firm onions that are free of blemishes. The papery orbs shouldn’t have a scent. Onions should be stored in a cool, dark place with plenty of ventilation, according to the National Onion Association. Avoid storing whole unpeeled onions in the refrigerator.