The humble onion is one of the most versatile ingredients at your disposal. As cooks, we use them in all sorts of dishes from flavorsome recipes like chilis and stews to spicing up a salad or sandwich. But with such a variety of uses, it can be tough to know which one works best for whatever you’re making.
There are several types of onion that are slightly better suited to different uses but are broadly interchangeable.
- Yellow onion is sharp and strong making it less pleasant to eat raw so is best cooked.
- Red onion is sweet and tasty, still fairly strong but great used raw or cooked.
- White onion is milder and good eaten raw.
- Scallions and spring onions are mild, fresh-tasting, and perfect for salads.
- Shallots are a delicate and flavorsome underdog for cooking. The chef’s favorite.
Choose the right onion for your dish by taking into consideration the dish’s flavors, texture, and cooking method.
To help you decide, I’ve included a few ideas in this post on which onions work best for different situations and how to prepare them. I’ve also put together an overview of the different popular varieties available in most stores as an easy reference to get you started.
Overview Of Different Onions
The most common types of onions found in grocery stores are known as storage onions as they have a long shelf life and can be stored for several months in your kitchen as long as you keep them in a cool, dark place.
There are several varieties available but the most popular ones used for culinary purposes are known by their color with yellow (also called brown), red, and white onions commonly available.
Yellow/brown onions have quite a pungent raw flavor from high sulfur content that mellows with cooking and are the type many of us will typically use for most recipes. The red variety has a sweeter, less harsh taste so can be eaten raw as well as used for cooking. White onions have the mildest flavor (although still quite pungent!) so are used raw as a garnish. They work best in hot dishes when cooked quickly otherwise they go very soft and mushy.
Another variety often used for cooking is the shallot, which is usually smaller and has a less aggressive raw flavor but has a similar shelf-life to storage onions. These make a great substitute when your recipe calls for onions but you prefer a more subtle taste.
You can use this type of allium for any of the examples listed below but are fantastic used in lighter dishes such as those from Mediterranean cuisines.
Other types of onions available include sweet, scallions (or green), spring, cipollini, and pearl onions although depending on the season not all of these are always available in your local grocery store.
Best Onion To Eat Raw
The best large onion to eat raw is the white onion as it has a milder flavor compared to others. Thanks to their more delicate taste, they are often used sliced on burger toppings, diced on tacos, or in quicker-cooked recipes.
If you’re looking for a raw onion with a bit more of a bite, but that still has a sweeter taste, then the red onion is a good choice.
Scallions (also known as green onions) or spring onions (which are similar but not actually the same as scallions) are also mild in flavor and are often eaten raw in salads or as a garnish.
Best Onion For Sandwiches
If you want something with flavor and color, then try using red onions. Their sweetness will complement your other fillings perfectly and they look great with the other sandwich fillings.
Another onion to put in a sandwich is the white onion as it has a milder taste that won’t overpower the rest of your ingredients.
For either of these, I like to slice the onion into rings or half rings as they look great in a sandwich that way.
You could also use grilled onions, which have a lovely soft texture and a slightly smoky flavor. Simply slice your onion thinly into strips, brush with a little oil, and cook on a hot grill pan for a few minutes until softened and lightly charred. Allow to cool before adding to your sandwich.
Best Onion For Hamburgers
There are several ways onions are used in hamburgers; either as a raw garnish on the top, grilled onions, or cooked with the meat as part of the burger.
For the garnish, I recommend using white onion as its less pungent taste will complement the burger without leaving a raw aftertaste. If you want something with a more punchy, but sweet taste, then try using red onions instead. As with sandwiches, I like my onion garnish to be sliced into either full rings or half rings.
For a real flavor boost, try using hot grilled onions on your hamburger. Use a yellow onion – slice it up and grill or pan-fry until golden and sweet.
The best onion to use as part of the cooked burger is the classic yellow onion as it has a fairly strong flavor that will stand up well to all the other ingredients. You will need to dice your onion into small pieces for use in the burger mix.
Best Onion For Chili
You can use either a yellow or red onion in all types of chili as both will bring good flavor to provide a base for the dish. Chili is usually cooked for a long time so these onions don’t disintegrate as much as a white onion.
There are so many varieties of chili but the common theme is a mellow, warm flavor that is cooked down over a long period of time.
As for preparing your onion for use in the chili, finely dicing it works well so that the chili becomes a meaty sauce. If you slice the onion into long strips then you get more texture which is often not what you want in a chili.
Best Onion For Salad
For a traditional green salad, I recommend using a white onion as it has a mild enough flavor that won’t dominate the other ingredients and leave too much of an aftertaste. You can make them even more mellow by soaking slices in cold water for an hour before serving.
For a Meditteranean style salad, like a Greek salad, it’s got to be red onion which looks perfect and tastes great next to other strong ingredients like olives and cheese.
Scallions or spring onions are also good options for salads as they add a nice crunch and mild flavor. You can use most of the green stem as well, so there’s no need to waste any part of the onion. Just remember to give them a good wash beforehand.
For a sweeter salad, try using a sweet onion such as Vidalia. These are great tossed in with your salad leaves for a lovely mild, sweet flavor with less aftertaste.
I prefer to chop all these types of onions into rings for use on salads as it just looks really appetizing that way.
Best Onion For Lasagne
Many recipes for lasagne do not specify the specific type to be used but traditionally the most common one to employ is the yellow onion.
This is mainly because it is flavorful enough to stand up to the other, often strongly flavored ingredients used in the sauce for lasagne and other pasta dishes such as garlic and herbs.
The onion will need to be diced finely for use in the recipe so that it softens easily and virtually disappears into the finished dish.
Onions are such a versatile ingredient and, as you can see, there is more than one type that is suitable for use in different recipes.
The key is to try different varieties to find the perfect flavor for your dish – in the end, you can’t go too wrong with any type of onion. Mainly use your yellow onion for cooking to mellow it, and try red or white onions for raw dishes.
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