Learn how different onions impact your cooking.
This is part of a series on onions. Check out the previous blog to learn about an onion’s flavor and how it changes based on how you cut or treat your onion.
Does it matter what type of onion you use?
So should I go with red or yellow? White or sweet? Shallot or scallion? Pearl or Cippolini? Spring or Autumn? (Okay there’s no such thing as an Autumn onion.)
There are a lot of onions. So do you have to run to the grocery store when a recipe calls for a yellow onion and you only have red? Short answer. No. The different types of onions are similar. And quite interchangeable. Therefore don’t cry (😉) if all you’ve got is Cippolini when you need a shallot. Dinner won’t be ruined.
Then why should we care? Well, there are subtle differences between each type. And those subtle differences can change a dish. Some onions are less similar. Some are better for certain cooking techniques. Some taste better raw. So let’s pull back the layers on these onions. 🥁
Yellow onions are the most versatile option. It’s the onion you should always have on hand. Their harshness mellows with cooking—just like every other onion—but they’re pungent when raw. So probably not the best option for burgers. But they’ll do the job, especially if you soak them to reduce their bite.
Spanish onions are a type of yellow onion. They’re typically larger and milder. So they’re better raw than yellow onions. And as Michael Ruhlman pointed out, they’re efficient onions too. How? Since they’re larger, that means you get more onion with less peeling. And we all know peeling an onion is a pain in the butt-er! 🧈
White onions are as versatile as yellow onions but milder tasting. So that’s why you find them raw in a burger or on top of a taco. But you can cook with them just the same as other onions. Fun fact: they also have thinner, more papery skins.
Red onions are more pungent than white onions, but many people still eat them raw. Probably because they add a beautiful pop of color. And they’re nice and crisp too. I like red onions grilled, roasted, or charred. But I love pickled red onions. They become bright pink and tangy. Overall, besides their color, they aren’t that different from yellow onions.
Sweet onions have famous varieties like Vidalias, Walla Wallas, and Mauis. It’s the sulfur in the soil that gives onions their pungency. But sweet onions are grown in soil with less sulfur. So they are less pungent than yellow or red onions. Their sweetness makes them great for serving raw or using to make onion rings. You can cook with sweet onions just like any other onion. But heat mellows all onions. You can’t tell the difference between a yellow and sweet onion when they’re cooked. So “branded” sweet onions aren’t worth the higher price tag if you’re just going to cook with them.
While they’re missing “onion” from their name, this magical vegetable is practically an onion. And probably deserving of their own spotlight. They have a similar yet milder flavor than other onions. They aren’t necessarily sweet when raw, but they turn that way when you cook them. Their mildness makes them perfect for vinaigrettes. And they add an amazing crunch when fried. I love to caramelize or pickle them.
These little dudes are tiny and sweet! Unfortunately, they are hard to find fresh at the grocery store. You’ll probably have better luck in the frozen section. How should you use them? They are wonderful cooked alongside a roasted or braised meat. And they become an amazing side on their own when grilled. Like all the others, they can also be caramelized, pickled, sweated, pinched, poked, and prodded. You could sauté them as a base for soup or risotto, but because of their size, cost, and the fact that they are a pain to peel, I’d stick to a white or yellow onion if I was you.
Quick trick: Peeling small onions is no easy feat. If you need to peel a lot of them try this: cut a slit into the skin and then blanch the onions in simmering water for 20-30 seconds. This will make it easier to get the skin off.
Cipollini onions are out of this world. They are shaped like UFOs. 🛸 Short, small, and disc-like, these Italian onions have more sugar in them. Because of their sweetness, they are a great side dish on their own, typically grilled or roasted. They are most similar to pearl onions. So that means peeling them is also a pain. 😑
While “onion” is in their name, they are the least similar to the others. To the point where I feel like calling them “onions” is false advertising! Why? They are insanely more mild and herbaceous compared to the others. And that’s the more intense white part. The green tops are practically an herb they’re so mild! Scallions are tasty when charred whole in a pan. The white parts are great quickly sautéed with garlic and ginger for fried rice. Or I like them in a vinaigrette or dipping sauce like you would use a shallot. And the green tops add color, herby-ness, and crunch to any dish.
These onions have bulbs on the bottoms but their tops make them look scallion. But they aren’t a scallion. (Unless you’re in the UK. You hop over the pond, and they call scallions “spring onions”.😵) So what are spring onions? They are normal storage onions like yellow or white onions. But they are harvested…you guessed it…in the spring! They are more intense than scallions but milder than the typical onion. That makes them a great side dish. I say grill or roast them like pearls or Cippolini!
Alright, I almost didn’t include these. But I didn’t want there to be any holes in my argument…Get it? Because holes cause leaks! Okay moving on…Leeks look like scallions too. But they aren’t scallions either. They are larger and taste sweet and woody. But woody in a good way. You wouldn’t eat them raw because they are fibrous. However, you can use them as a direct substitute for yellow onions when cooking. For example, sauté them as part of an aromatic base for a soup, sauce, or braise. I also love caramelizing them and then throwing them in a quiche or frittata!
The best place to store storage onions—yellow, white, and red ones—are somewhere cool, dry, and dark. The bottom of your pantry is good. Your basement is even better.
Sweeter onions—including pearls and Cippolini—should be stored in the refrigerator. Spring onions, scallions, and leeks should all be wrapped with damp towels and stored in your fridge.
And no matter the type of onion, once you cut into it, put them in the fridge wrapped in plastic or beeswax.
Where I learned this: Lots of great articles from places like Serious Eats, Bon Appetit, and the Kitchn. And also On Food and Cooking by Harold McGhee and Ruhlman’s Twenty by Michael Ruhlman.