Onions: how and when to use which variety

by Robyn Wright on May 6, 2014

in Food

ONIONS - How and when to use which variety | RobynsOnlineWorld.com

Photo source: Adapted (added title) from “Night Onions” by Katherine Sharpe on Flickr

When I first got married the only onion I cooked with was the dried onion flakes you find in the spice aisle. I did this because it was easy (no chopping, no tears) and because I feared biting into a piece of onion in cooked food. Ugh! You know, when you get a piece of raw (or rawish) onion in something that is cooked – the other foods are soft but the onion has that very particular bite to it when raw and even a sound. Celery has this same quality. For me, biting into that raw onion in cooked food was just as bad as nails on a chalkboard! I still keep the dried minced onions on hand for when I’m out of regular onions and Hubby uses them a lot when he cooks.

For those of you who think you do not like onions, what you may not like is just the same issue that I have. Other “onion haters” may have had onion in another dish that just was not a good mix of flavors, textures, or even just too much onion. My advice to all of you is to rethink onions and give them another chance but in some different ways.

If you are not big on knowing the onion is in a dish the trick is to chop the onion finely and sauté it until soft. If a recipe calls to add an onion after the meat is browned for example, do the opposite instead. Add the onion first to soften it and then add the meat to the pan) especially ground beef. This eliminates those big pieces of partially raw onion. Doing it this way you will notice you love the extra flavor your food has and I promise the picky eaters who say they hate onions will never complain one bit! This applies to all the onions.

Yellow Onion

Commonly called Spanish onions also. This is a good all around onion for cooking but not as good for using in a raw state. If you want caramelized onions or to make something like French onion soup, the yellow onion is your best bet partly because when you sauté a yellow onion it gets to a deep golden brown and becomes sweet and milder. Also a great choice for stocks.

Yellow onions

Photo source: “Yellow Onions” by Market Manager on Flickr

White Onion

This is actually my personal go to onion for cooking, I just like the look of them better at the store all the time. It is the type of onion used in classic Mexican dishes as well. White onions will turn a gold color when sautéed and become a bit sweeter. My husband likes slices of raw white onion when he has ham and beans – I think it is the contrast of the sharpness and crispness of the onion next to the soft and muddled flavor of the beans.

white onions

Photo source: “onions” by ikayama on Flickr

Red Onion

Most of the US calls them red, but in other places they are called purple onions. That makes more sense since they actually are purple and not red. I bet it was a color-blind man who decide they should be called red. The red onion is great for raw uses. Not only with the flavor add kick to a dish but the vibrant color is a nice addition. You see red onions often for salads and as sandwich toppings. When used for this purpose I highly recommend slicing them paper thin. Get a small hand slicer (or mandolin) if you aren’t so great with a knife. The thin slices are kind of invisible as far as texture goes in these dishes but the flavor impact is there and makes a big difference. If you try the same dish with thick cut onions though I guarantee you will see a huge change in how you feel about the recipe.

red onions

Photo source: “Red Onions” by vijay chennupati on Flickr

Sweet Onions

Types of these are generally labeled as Vidalia or Walla Walla. These sweet onions are considerably less bitter than other onions and sweet without adding heat even. Because they have more sugar content from nature they have a much shorter shelf life though which explains why stores make such a big stink (ha ha, pun intended) when the sweet onions come in season.

vidalia onions

Photo source: “Vidalia Onions” by ryan griffis on Flickr

Shallots

I adore using shallots when I make pan sauces and in homemade dressings. These are smaller than an onion and kind of look more like garlic actually. Sometimes there are a couple of bulbs inside the main paper skin, be sure to take off that inner skin in that case also. Shallots have a stronger taste when used raw and you will generally see recipes for raw use saying to mince finely. This is so no one bites down on a big piece. When cooked they mellow considerably. For a sauce you would usually add them the same time as garlic, and be careful as if you burn shallots they will become bitter just like garlic does. I love to thinly slice shallots and toss them with any veggie I roast on a cookie sheet in the oven, it adds a great depth of flavor to the vegetables.

shallots

Photo source: “Shallots” by Tim Sackton on Flickr

Green Onions/Scallions

These are actually classified as herbs rather than a vegetable like other onions. These are often used raw to add a lighter flavor, texture, and color to a dish. The white and green parts can be used, sans the roots at the end. A lot of the Asian recipes I have call for green onions in both the cooked part and then as a garnish at the end.

green onions

Photo source: “Greens” by Rachel Hathaway on Flickr

Chives

These are also more of an herb and commonly used more as a garnish than cooked into a dish. The chive has a mild onion flavor with a hint of garlic mixed in. Use kitchen scissors to easily cut a bunch of chives into small pieces to sprinkle on top of your dishes. Great for color and flavor. Many people think these are just immature green onions but that is incorrect. Chives are commonly used on top of baked potatoes. These are super easy to grow in your garden or on a window sill in the kitchen.

chives

Photo source: “06 –Zutat Schnittlauch / Ingredient chives” by JaBB on Flickr

Leeks

These are becoming more common to see in regular grocery stores finally. They are part of the same genus of chives and shallots actually. Leeks have a mild onion flavor and are great in soups especially. Leeks are not good raw generally. It is really important to wash leeks well though because they are very dirty/sandy inside. I typically cut the leeks like I want them for the recipe and then put them in a bowl of water and swish around. The dirt will fall to the bottom of the bowl and you can scoop out your clean pieces of leek from the top. Use the light green and white portion of leeks for cooking. You can save the darker pieces at the top for making stocks though.

leeks

Photo source: “leeks” by liz west on Flickr

Pearl Onions

You can buy fresh pearl onions if you like, but they are a royal pain to peel. Bags of frozen pearl onions are available by the other frozen vegetables at the grocer. I keep them on hand as they are great to add into stews right from the freezer. They add the onion flavor but they stay together more so the folks who want to eat them can and the picky eaters can push them out of their way.

pearl onions

Photo source: “Pearl Onions” by dnkbdotcom on Flickr

All of these varieties are used in my kitchen. It really depends on what I am making. When I share recipes here on my blog that contain onions I try to include which variety I have used. However, you can interchange a lot of these types of onions. Use what you have on hand always and adapt recipes for you and your family.

So do you cook with onions? Which is your “go to onion”? Do you have a favorite onion recipe?

Robyn    

© 2014, Robyn Wright. All rights reserved.

  • http://ChristinaGleason.com/ Christina Gleason

    My husband makes a fantastic French onion soup using a white, a red, and a Vidalia onion. It’s amazing.

    When I have a salad or a burger, there’s nothing like a slice of red onion on top to add a bite to it.

    • http://www.RobynsOnlineWorld.com/ Robyn Wright

      I bet that onion soup with the different varieties is fantastic! Do you have the recipe up online anywhere?

      • http://ChristinaGleason.com/ Christina Gleason

        It’s a relatively new creation of his, so I’ll have to ask him to write down how he makes it. I could make that sucker Pinterest-worthy!

  • http://artpark78.com/blog1 yonawilliams

    This is a great resource…Pinning this. I’ve often sat in front of the onion section and just wondered, ‘what is the difference?’ ‘which one do I choose.’ I loved learning that the sweeter the onion, the faster it spoils. Explains a lot.

  • http://historyinculture.wordpress.com/ Robin

    I usually use yellow onions for cooking, because I prefer mild onions, but occasionally I will use red onions in salad. Thanks for the great info!

  • gkran

    I love them and use them all. My favorites are the sweet onions and green onions.

  • tannawings

    We love onions of any kind and i use them often. They are really quite good for you. Our absolute favorite is Vidalia onions and I cant wait until they show up on the shelves. My only gripe with them is sometimes some grocery stores try passing off yellow onions as Vidalias and you can tell the difference!

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