What’s the secret to boosting the flavor of any dish? It’s not salt or butter or spices, it’s onions. Depending on the type of onion you reach for and how you choose to prepare it, these allium bulbs can add a hint of sweetness or a punch of spice to your meal.
There are so many types of onions and uses, which makes them popular in just about every type of cuisine around the world. But not all onions are made equal. Discover what differentiates various types of onions and how to use them in your kitchen.
How Many Types of Onions Are There?
The short answer: it depends on who you ask. In general, there are 6 different types of onions — we’ll outline those six below. However, some food critics have different opinions. For instance, leeks and chives technically belong to the onions family, but they’re not considered true onions because they can’t be interchanged with onion recipes.
By that logic, the classifications of onions are dependent on not just their allium status, but also their ability to be used in cooking. So, without further adieu, let’s jump into the different types of onions and uses.
Yellow (Spanish) Onions
Yellow onions, sometimes listed as “Spanish onions,” are the holy grail of onion varieties. They are the standard cooking onion because of their versatility. Their high sulfur content makes them pungent when consumed raw, but sweeter when cooked.
According to the National Onion Association (yes, that’s real), yellow onions make up almost 90% of onion growth in the United States. Their abundance in stores and their versatility in cooking make them suitable onions for most recipes. If you’re ever unsure what type of onion a recipe calls for, yellow onions are your safe choice.
You’ll know you’re reaching for a yellow onion if it has papery yellow-to-orange skin. When sliced, the flesh is a light yellow, almost white color.
As the following list suggests, yellow onions really can do it all. Below are the recommended methods for preparing yellow onions:
- Slow cooked
Want to try making classic french onion soup at home? You can use any onions you have on hand, but yellows are the best onions for french onion soup.
Unlike raw yellow onions, white onions are on the milder side. This makes them great for dishes that require raw onions like salsa, guacamole, or other garnishes. Their flavor is a bit cleaner than yellows with less of an aftertaste.
White onions have white papery skin with a white flesh. Their water content is higher than other onion varieties, which gives them a juicy crunch. When used raw, they can add some texture to sandwiches and burgers or in Mexican cuisine as mentioned earlier.
Though they’re great raw, white onions can hold up in other methods of cooking too. In fact, they can serve as a substitute option for yellow onions in most recipes.
Use white onions to make this authentic pico de gallo recipe for your next taco Tuesday.
Out of all the types of onions and uses, red onions pack the strongest punch. They are pungent like yellow onions, yet mild enough to eat raw — though, some chefs suggest using uncooked red onion sparingly since they taste sharp to many palates.
Red onions are sometimes described as having a “spicy” flavor, but they can actually be quite sweet between the months of March through September. To soften the peppery flavor, try running your sliced onions under some cold water before preparing.
Their skin is a deep reddish-purple with a purple and white interior. Their vibrant color makes them a suitable option for adding some color to salads or sandwiches.
The best onions for grilling are red onions. They taste great when charred on the grill and their texture doesn’t get too mushy like white or yellow onions. Red onions are also the best to use for pickling.
If you’ve been searching for the best pickled red onion recipe, look no further.
Sweet (Vidalia, Maui) Onions
As their name suggests, sweet onion varieties have a sweeter taste than most onion varieties. They are sweet because they are lower in sulfur, which allows their sugar content to stand out. Their milder taste makes them a great choice to use raw in salads or garnishes.
Their skin is light yellow, which sometimes can get them confused with yellow onions. The key differences that will indicate that you’re grabbing a sweet onion are that their skin is thinner and they are larger in size than yellow onions.
When considering all onion types and uses, sweet onions are a popular choice for caramelizing because of their high sugar content. The heat from the pan breaks down the onion’s natural sugars which is what causes the caramelization process.
Green Onions (Scallions)
Commonly referred to as “scallions,” green onions are much milder than other onion varieties. What makes them unique is their shape. Unlike other rounded bulb onions, scallions look like slender two-toned stalks.
Scallion stalks are green on one side and progressively get lighter until they reach white. Both sides are used in cooking and can yield different tastes. Scallion greens have a fresh, grassy flavor, whereas the whites have a brighter kick.
Green onions are popular in Asian and Mexican cuisines. When uncooked, you can use them as a garnish in soups, salads, tacos, and more for a light pop of flavor. Their true “oniony” flavor comes out when they’re thinly sliced and cooked.
Try using scallions in your savory baked goods, like in cheddar muffins.
Another unique onion variety is the shallot. They look like miniature red onions, but they also come in white and yellow varieties. Their smaller, bulb shape is what makes them unique in appearance from their rounded onion counterparts.
Like green onions, they have a milder taste that some even describe as “garlicky.” However, they can be interchangeable with yellow, red, or white onions in most dishes because they still have a hint of sharpness and acidity.
One of the best things about shallots is their versatility in the kitchen. Their mild taste makes them delicious raw, but they can be great onions for roasting, frying, carmelizing, or pickling.
Shallots are commonly used in French cooking. Their vinaigrette dressing, specifically, is known for using minced shallots. Try preparing it at home.
Tips for Storing Onions
When stored properly, whole onions can last for as long as two to three months. To preserve their shelf life, it’s recommended that they’re stored in a cool, dark place like in a pantry, garage, or cellar.
If those locations aren’t an option for you, they can also last for two to three months in the refrigerator — just be aware, they may lose some of that crunch because they absorb moisture easily.
After your onions are sliced or peeled, their shelf life is shorter. Your leftover raw onions should be kept in the fridge in an airtight container. Following these recommendations should keep your onions fresh for seven to 10 days.
If you’re storing leftover cooked onions in the fridge, they should be used within four days.
Another pro-tip: make sure you keep your onions and potatoes stored in separate places. Onions produce ethylene gas that can cause your potatoes to ripen and go bad faster than normal. Your onions can also spoil quicker because of the potatoes’ high moisture content.