Can I Use Red Onion Instead Of White In Pasta Sauce?

If you’re just getting ready in the kitchen to make your favorite pasta sauce and find you only have a red onion in the storecupboard, you are probably asking yourself if you can use it instead of white or yellow onion in pasta sauce.

You can substitute red onion for a white or yellow one in your pasta sauce recipe without any problems. They are prepared and cooked in the same way but you may notice red is subtly sweeter and more delicate.

The purple flesh will fade when cooking so that very little color remains on the actual onion. Red can be slightly tougher than white/yellow onions and will soften when cooked, but neither will dissolve completely in a sauce.

Let’s look at the differences between red, yellow, and white onions and which ones work best in pasta sauce and other recipes. Keep reading to find out what I discovered about these members of the allium family that are staples of every cook’s pantry.

What Happens If I Use Red Onion In Pasta Sauce?

If you use red onion in your pasta sauce instead of yellow or white, you’ll likely not notice any difference. One thing you might notice is that the onion flavor will be more subtle. This is because red onions are less pungent and milder than the more commonly used yellow variety.

As a flavor substitute for the stronger-tasting onions they are perfectly acceptable and in fact, some people prefer the more delicate flavor of red onions in their pasta sauce. They are prepared and cooked in exactly the same way so when following a recipe, you can directly replace a white or yellow one with a red one.

The other difference you may notice if you are making a lighter-colored pasta sauce without tomatoes is that red onions may give it a very faint pinkish tinge.

If there are any other ingredients with some sort of color such as carrots you will probably not even notice the red hue from the onions.

So, if you’re in a hurry and don’t have any other onions to hand, go ahead and use red onion in your pasta sauce. The flavor or look of the finished product will be slightly different but it will still taste great.

Are White And Yellow Onions Different?

When people talk about using white or yellow onions, it’s very possible that most are probably referring to the same thing – the far more common yellow onions. These are also called brown onions and have a golden brown outer layer and yellow/whiteish flesh. 

If a pasta recipe doesn’t specify which type of onion it requires, chances are this is the type of onion it wants you to use.

Confusingly, there is actually a white onion variety that is a little milder and softer than yellows and indeed even reds. These have skin that is thin and papery and tends not to leave too much of an aftertaste, even though they’re still quite sharp. 

For that reason, they’re often used as a raw garnish or for cooking quickly in Central and Latin American cuisine for example.

You can safely use any in a bolognese sauce or other dishes as there is not so much of a difference between them that it will affect the taste of your recipe to any degree.

Difference Between Red And White Or Yellow Onion

Red, yellow and white onions are all types of what is commonly known as storage onions. That’s because once they’re harvested, usually at the end of summer, they are laid out to dry as a curing process. 

After that, if you store them properly in a cool, dark place in your kitchen they will keep for months.

The most common variety in the United States and Europe is the yellow onion (also known as a brown onion) which has a golden brown skin and can have a strong flavor, especially when raw. This rawness can be mellowed and sweetened by cooking them in some way such as roasting, carmelizing, or sauteeing. 

Due to having quite a high starch content, they don’t turn to mush, even when cooked for a long period so they’re ideal for pasta sauce as well as caramelizing to use in dishes like French onion soup.

Next up is the red onion which tends to be a little milder and sweeter than its yellow cousins when raw. For this reason, you will often find them used in salads and as a garnish on burgers, etc. Obviously, the main difference to other onions is their color and often they are used in recipes just because of that. When cooked there is not too much difference taste-wise to yellow onions.

White onions are often slightly milder than yellows and reds and usually have thin papery skin. They’re typically used in Latin American cuisine where they don’t need to be cooked for long as they can become a little mushy. You are less likely to come across these in the grocery aisle at the store as they are not as popular as yellow and red onions.

Which Onions Are Suited To What Recipes?

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to which onions you can use in different recipes. In general, yellow onions are the most versatile and can be used in lots of dishes. They are high in sulfur which makes them sharp and often avoided eaten raw.

Their pungent flavor mellows and sweetens the longer they are cooked and their texture holds up very well. Yellow onions are suited to lots of simmering or sauteeing like pasta sauces, stews, casseroles, soups, and caramelized onions.

Red onions are extremely versatile and can safely be used in cooked dishes in place of white or yellow varieties. Red onions’ sweetness and color mean they’re also often used in raw dishes such as salads, salsa, and sandwiches. Just be aware that recipes with light-colored ingredients such as potatoes and eggs can end up becoming discolored when using red onions. 

White onions can also be used for cooking but as they tend to become quite soft when cooked for a long time, they’re usually better for recipes with short cooking times such as rice dishes, tacos, empanadas, etc. Thanks to white onions’ mild flavor they are often used raw in salsa, guacamole, and pico de gallo.


When it comes to using red onion instead of white or yellow in your pasta sauce, hopefully you’ve found the answers you’re looking for in my article.

In short, there is not much difference in flavor between red and yellow onions when cooked so you can use either one in your pasta sauce recipe. The main thing you might notice is the visual appearance so if you only have a red onion available, it’s perfectly ok to use it. Otherwise, both will work just fine.

I also looked at why yellow onions rather than any other color are the most popular to use in cooked dishes and how they can often be confused with white onions as their flesh is similar looking.

Whichever one you end up using, I’m sure you will end up with a tasty sauce to enjoy with your pasta.

Have any questions? Ask me in the comment section below and I’ll get back to you.

Tom Hambly

Tom Hambly is the founder of Boss The Kitchen. With a background in cooking and building websites, he enjoys running this site to help other cooks improve. About Tom Hambly.

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