If you're like me, there's nothing more rewarding as a home cook than getting to know the best onions for cooking and using in different dishes.
Different Types of Onions
Onions, part of the allium family (which includes garlic and chives), are used in practically every cuisine worldwide.
There's also really no limit on how they can be incorporated into our food. Stir-fried, baked, grilled, deep-fried, served raw, pickled - the real question is, how could we live without them? Cooking without onions is almost too hard to imagine!
Does it Matter Which Onion you Use?
Many onions can be used interchangeably; red onions, yellow onions, shallots, white onions - as long as one type of onion is there. But, if you want to step up your home cooking to the next level, it is worth becoming familiar with the best onions for cooking different dishes. Knowing the differences will mean that you will have more confidence in using a particular type of onion that will amplify the taste of your dish even more!
Which Onions are Best for Cooking?
1. Yellow Onions (also called Brown Onions)
What type of onion is most popular? For me, yellow onions are the Swiss knife of all onions; they're the easiest to find and (usually) the most affordable. When a recipe doesn't specify the type of onion, it most definitely refers to yellow onions. They are the all-purpose onion of the onion world.
Yellow onions have a yellow-brown papery skin on the outside and layers of greenish-white on the inside. In terms of size, yellow onions range from the size of a lemon to a navel orange. These are the one type of onion I always keep stocked up in my pantry.
Flavor: Yellow onions are the most intense of all onions when raw but turn mellow and sweet when cooked.
Yellow onions, the best onions for cooking: What are yellow onions normally used for? The most versatile to use in all cooking, they will hold their shape when slow-cooked, stir-fried, baked, deep-fried, caramelized, and much more. The only thing yellow onions are not great for is eating raw due to their intensity and pungent flavor. Use yellow onions to make this delicious green lentil dahl recipe.
2. Sweet Onions
As the name implies, sweet onions are a type of sweet onion due to their higher sugar content and are less intense due to their lower sulfur content. Their skin is lighter in color and slightly more translucent than yellow onions.
What are the names of sweet onions? Sweet onions are usually named after the region they are grown in, like Vidalia (the most popular and from the United States), Walla Walla, and Maui (both from Hawaii), and are usually only available in season.
Sweet onions are generally slightly larger than the average yellow onion and a little flatter and wider in shape. When sliced, most people can hardly tell the difference between sweet and yellow onions just by looking.
Flavor: Sweet onions are crisp and sweet. They are milder in flavor and more watery than yellow onions.
Sweet onions, the best onions for cooking: Because of their sweetness, sweet onions are great for eating raw and for caramelizing - add them to these tasty mushroom tartlets. Sweet onions are also good for onion rings because of their wider diameter. Some hardcore fans of Vidalia onions even eat them whole, just like they would an apple! I like tossing sliced-up sweet onions in salads and layering them in sandwiches, wraps, and burgers.
3. Red Onions
What is so Special About Red Onion?
If I could pick a favorite onion just out of looks, the red onion is a clear winner! Despite the name, I think this onion has more of a beautiful deep purple hue than red. Either way, its vibrancy always adds a pop of color to your dish, especially when kept raw.
Red onions are shaped very similarly to yellow onions and are commonly sold when they reach about 3 to 4 inches in diameter, although occasionally, extra large red onions are also sold.
Flavor: Red onions have a milder and sweeter taste than yellow onions and are also slightly crunchier. How to make onions less strong for a salad? A tip to mellow out any sharpness of red onion while maintaining its crunch is to soak the slices in ice water before serving.
Red Onions, the best onions for cooking: What should red onions be used for? I often use red onions because they taste sweeter and milder than yellow ones. They also add great contrast to salads, as well as spiciness and crunch to juicy burgers. Their pretty color also makes this onion a great contender for quick pickling. Red onions are also good served alongside curries, on top of tacos and this samosa dipping sauce, or even hot dogs.
4. White Onions
The first time I tried white onion, It was like an epiphany! I was so surprised by how mild and less intense it is compared to other types of onions. White onions are shaped very similarly to yellow ones, usually medium to large in size. As the name signifies, all layers of the onion are a bright white color. Due to their thinner, papery skin, white onions don't keep as long at room temperature as other onions.
Flavor: White onions are milder and sweeter than yellow and red onions, though not as sweet as sweet onions. Among all the most commonly available onions (red, yellow, white, and sweet onions), white onions are the least to have a lingering aftertaste.
White onions, the best onions for cooking: What are white onions best for? Due to their mild flavor, I almost exclusively enjoy them raw. White onions are particularly popular in Latin and South American recipes; it is the best type of onion chopped in salsas and guacamole or sprinkled as a finishing touch to a side dish that wants a subtle onion flavor without overpowering the dish's flavor profile.
5. Pearl Onions
An underrated contender in the onion world, pearl onions don't get as much exposure as their bigger cousins due to their unique size. Although white is the most common color, pearl onions also come in red and yellow varieties. These little darlings look just like miniature onions, no bigger than the size of grapes. They need to be peeled before using but trust me, it's all worth it in the end!
Flavor: Because of their size, pearl onions have not developed a lot of sharpness and, therefore, are milder and sweeter than their bigger counterparts.
Pearl Onions, the best onions for cooking: Because they are mainly used whole or cut in half, pearl onions are great if you want to incorporate them in braises or roasts. They also make a refined version of pickled onions, which can be served alongside sandwiches, salads, or even added to savory alcoholic drinks like Bloody Marys and Micheladas (Mexican-style beer cocktails).
6. Cipollini Onions
Cipollini (sometimes called Cippolini or Cipolline), which means 'little onions' in Italian, got its name from its petite size and slightly flat shape. Cipollini onions have translucent white flesh layers and thin papery skin that can be a chore to peel. They are kind of like a cuter, mini version of Vidalia sweet onions.
Flavor: Cipollini onions taste extra sweet compared to other onions, not unlike sweet onions.
Cipollini onions, the best onions for cooking: Like sweet onions, Cipollini onions are great for caramelizing with balsamic vinegar due to their high sugar content. They are also good to add to show-stopping roasts for a large gathering, in which they will be nicely caramelized when the roast is cooked. Cipollini onions are also good sliced and added to salads or quick pickles.
7. Shallots - Best Onions for Cooking
You'll probably see shallots mentioned almost exclusively in Southeast Asian and French recipes. Shallots grow in bulb clusters, like garlic, but have brown skin like yellow onions and purplish layers of flesh like a red onion. Shallots grown in the western hemisphere are somewhat larger and more slender than Asian shallots that grow in smaller-sized clusters.
Flavor: Shallots taste sweet and delicate with a mild sharpness.
Shallots, the best onions for cooking: In French recipes, shallots are chopped finely to add flavor and texture to a fresh vinaigrette or added whole in braises and stews, casseroles, and roasts. In South and Southeast Asian recipes, it is the main allium used: sliced and deep-fried to make the iconic fried shallots that can be sprinkled on just about anything, as the base flavoring to stir-fries, or pounded together with chilies, garlic, galangal, and turmeric to make a flavor base.
Scallions are another versatile onion that I always have stocked in my refrigerator. They are another humble ingredient that can transform a dish or even be a star. Scallions are simply a type of onion that has not yet matured. They are thin and long, white and firm at the bottom, and gradually get greener and leafy as it gets to the top.
Commonly sold in bunches, scallions also go by other names, including green onions and bunching onions.
Tip: To cut prep time, I like to wash and cut my scallions as soon as I get home from the market. Sliced scallions are best kept in an air-tight container in the fridge and will keep for up to two weeks. Just make sure they are completely dry before storing them.
Flavor: Scallions give just enough onion flavor without taking over the prominent flavor of the dish. They are slightly sweet with only a slight sharpness.
Scallions, the best onions for cooking: Scallions are great raw, cooked, or even slightly charred. I add scallions to practically everything, especially in my Asian recipes - to top Chinese congee, mixed into an omelet and a breakfast burrito, sprinkled on top of Vietnamese banh xeo crepes or lo mein noddles, or even a star of its own show in a ginger scallion sauce. When cooking scallions, remember that the top green part will cook faster than the thicker white bottom part. To ensure they are cooked at the same rate, separate the whites and the greens when chopping, and cook the white pieces a couple of minutes beforehand.
Spring onions are a more mature scallion or green onion, whereby the onion has started to bulb. Spring onions are long and thin, with a bulb at the bottom. The bulb is larger than a scallion's, white in color, round-shaped, and looks like a mini onion. The spring onion gets greener and leafy as it gets to the top. Spring onions are generally sold in bunches and are readily available from grocers and markets.
Flavor: Spring onions are milder and sweeter than regular onions such as yellow onions.
Spring onions, the best onions for cooking: Spring onions are a good substitute for sweet onions. The long green tops and the small white bulb can be eaten either raw, cooked, or even charred. I add spring onions to many dishes, including lo mein noodles, charred as a garnish for teriyaki tofu, mixed into sweetcorn fritters, or with sea bass fish served with sizzling chili, ginger, and spring onions. When cooking spring onions, remember that the white bulb at the bottom will cook slower than the green parts. For even cooking, separate the white bulb from the long greens when chopping and add the white bulbs into the recipe a couple of minutes before the green tops.
At a glance, leeks look like oversized scallions or green onions. They are up to around an inch in diameter, their flesh is white and tender at the stem, and the tops are dark green, thicker, and more fibrous than scallions.
Flavor: Leeks have a relatively mild, slightly sweet onion flavor.
Leeks, the best onions for cooking: Because of their thick fiber, leeks are seldom eaten raw. Leeks are often used in braises, stews, soups such as the classic potatoes and leek soup, stocks, or gratin.
10. Pink Onions - Best Onions for Cooking
Do Pink Onions Exist?
Pink onions are milder and sweeter than yellow and red onions. They have a lovely pink color inside and outside that looks good in a salad or garnish. Types of pink onions include the Australian Rosalee and the French Roscoff.
Flavor: Pink onions are milder and sweeter than yellow and red onions.
Pink onions, the best onions for cooking: You can eat pink onions either raw or cooked, such as roasted or stewed. They are also suitable for topping salads and grilled meats and look great pickled.
11. Ramps - Best Onions for Cooking
Ramps are not the easiest onion to find in your neighborhood grocery store, but they can sometimes be found seasonally at farmers' markets or co-op stores at the beginning of springtime. They have thin white stems and flat, wide leafy green tops, making them easy to mistake for leafy vegetables.
Flavor: Ramps have a stronger flavor than leeks and scallions, with a hint of garlic.
Ramps, the best onions for cooking: You can use ramps like scallions or spring onions; in stir-fries, soups, and dumplings.
What are Different Types of Onions Used for?
How do I Know Which Onion to Use?
|Uses||Best Types of Onions|
|Eating raw||Sweet onions, red onions, white onions, cipollini onions, shallots, scallions, spring onions, pink onions|
|Stir-frying||Yellow onions, shallots, scallions, ramps, spring onions|
|Stewing||Shallots, yellow onions, leeks, pink onions|
|Caramelizing||Sweet onions, cippolini onions, yellow onions|
|Roasting||Pearl onions, cipollini onions, yellow onions, shallots, pink onions|
|Braising||Pearl onions, shallots, leeks|
|Pickling||Red onions, pearl onions, cipollini onions, shallots, yellow onions, pink onions|
|Slow-cooking||Yellow onions, leeks|
|Deep-frying||Yellow onions, sweet onions, shallots|
|Charring||Leeks, scallions, spring onions|
Best Onions for Cooking - How to Purchase and Store Onions
How to Pick a Good Onion
How to choose onions? Choosing leafy green onions (leeks, ramps, scallions) is easy: avoid mushy and wilted layers or overly dried-out tops, which signify they have been on the shelf far too long. For hard onions, such as yellow, white, red, or sweet onions, choose firm ones with no signs of softness.
This is why I find it easy to always have onions in my kitchen: they are incredibly easy to store. Rule of thumb for storing: keep soft leafy onions in the fridge, but never in a plastic bag, which will make them rot quicker. Hard onions should be stored in a cool, dry place. Tip: moisture is onion's enemy - ensure they are dry before and during storage.
Freeezing Onions - Best Onions for Cooking
Because they keep well at room temperature, freezing onions is not very common. If I have leftover chopped onions, I usually keep them in the refrigerator, and they'd last for days. If you have a big batch of sliced or chopped onions, you can freeze them immediately, and they will last for three months. To thaw, leave them at room temperature for 15 minutes or until defrosted and they are ready to use.
It is important to note that frozen onions may not taste as strong as fresh onions, so using them 'raw' is not always suited. I like to try to incorporate previously frozen onions in stews.
Best Onions for Cooking FAQs
How Many Different Kind of Onions are There?
How many types of onions are there? There are over 100 onion types, with significant differences in texture, taste, and intensity. Most onions are named after the location they were cultivated in or by the person that bred them.
What are the 4 types of onions? When I think of the four main types of onions used in home cooking, I think of yellow, red, and white onions and shallots.
What are the 5 types of onions? I would add shallots as the fifth primary type of onion, as they are widely used in French and Southeast Asian cooking.
What Types of Onions are Sweet?
- What onion has the sweetest flavor? Vidalia and Walla Walla are some of the sweet onion varieties with a sweet flavor.
- Which color onions are the sweetest? Walla Walla onions are one of the sweetest. They have light golden brown skin with a whitish inside.
- Which onion is sweeter yellow white or red? Red onions are sweeter tasting than yellow or white onions.
Which Onion is Best for Cooking?
- Which type of onion is best for cooking? The best cooking onions all depend on what you are making. Read further below for the answers to your questions about 'What Types of Onions are Best for...?' for the breakdown of which onion is best for certain dishes.
- What is the best tasting onion? This comes down to personal preference and which onion has the best flavor profile to match a particular dish.
- Which onion is more flavorful? Again, this all depends on what you are cooking, as different flavors of onions suit different dishes.
- Does it matter what color onion I use? Different colored onions have varying properties in regard to taste and intensity. It is important to remember to use the right color onion depending on what you are cooking. So pick and choose the color of onion that suits the flavor profile of your dish. For example, due to their taste and crunch red onions are perfect for salsa.
Yellow Onions - Best Onions for Cooking
- Are yellow onions sweet? - Yellow onions can be harsh and intense when consumed raw but will become increasingly mellow and sweet the longer they are cooked.
- What are yellow onions normally used for? Yellow onions are versatile, affordable, and accessible and they are one of the most popular types of onion used in cuisines around the world.
- Which is hotter white or yellow onions? Yellow onions are hotter than white onions.
- Which onions are better for cooking white or yellow? Neither white nor yellow onions are better. Using the right onion to suit the dish you are cooking is important.
- Why use yellow onion instead of white? Use yellow onions instead of white if you want a more intense, pungent onion taste in your dish.
- Can I use yellow onion instead of white? I use lots of onions interchangeably and will often use a yellow onion instead of a white onion, as they are what I always have on hand in my kitchen pantry.
Red Onions - Best Onions for Cooking
- Are red onions best raw or cooked? Red onions are good, both raw and cooked. When raw, they add a mild and sweet sharpness.
- Are red onions good for cooking? Red onions are good for cooking. For example, when blended into a tomato and green chili curry sauce, they add a slight sharpness.
- Are red onions sweet? Red onions are sweeter than many other types of onions, such as yellow onions.
- Why soak red onions in water? Soaking red onions in cold water for about 15 minutes will help mellow the sharpness while keeping their crunch.
- Why use red onions instead of white? Red onions are generally more versatile for cooking than white onions. The red onion's deep purple-reddish hue looks and tastes great added to salsas, salads, burgers, and more!
- Can I use red onion instead of yellow? Yes, you can use red onions instead of yellow. Note - red onions are milder and sweeter than yellow onions, so they will give your dish a different taste.
White Onions - Best Onions for Cooking
- Are white onions good cooked? White onions are good both cooked and raw.
- Is white or yellow onion better raw? I prefer white onions raw as they are milder and less intense.
- Are yellow or white onions better for cooking? I find yellow onions more versatile for cooking. Read the section below on 'What Types of Onions are Best for...?' for all the ways that white and yellow onions can be used in cooking.
- What can I do with a lot of white onions? Chop them up and freeze them for:
- Which has stronger flavor white or yellow onion? Yellow onions have a stronger flavor compared to white onions.
- Which is better white onion or red onion? Neither is better: they are just different. It is always good to match the onion to the dish you are making.
Cippollini Onions - Best Onions for Cooking
- Are cipollini onions the same as pearl onions? Cipollini and pearl onions are different types of varieties of onions. They are both small in size, have a similar texture, and are sweet-tasting compared to yellow onions.
Shallots - Best Onions for Cooking
- Are shallots good raw? Shallots are good to use raw in a range of recipes, such as salads and vinaigrettes.
- What is the difference between shallots and red onions? The outer skin of shallots is brown colored whilst red onions have a red outer skin. Similar to red onions, though, shallots have reddish-purple layers of flesh. Both shallots and red onions are milder and sweeter tasting than yellow onions. Red onions grow much larger than shallots.
- Shallot vs yellow onion? Shallots have a sweeter and more subtle flavor than yellow onions.
- Sweet onion vs shallot? Sweet onions are much larger than shallots and are wider and flatter in shape. Both sweet onions and shallots are milder than yellow onions.
Sweet Onions - Best Onions for Cooking
- Are Vidalia onions good for cooking? Vidalia onions are good for cooking, especially caramelizing, due to their high sugar content.
- Are Vidalia onions sweet? Vidalia onions are sweeter and milder than regular onions like yellow onions.
- Are Vidalia onions the same as sweet onions? Vidalia onions are a type of sweet onion.
What to Do with Sprouted Onions?
You might have seen an onion with a sprout growing through its center. Sprouted onions can be a sign that they are not as fresh anymore and will be less sweet and flavorful. If you don't want to eat sprouted onions, you can always grow them into a new one! Just discard (or use) the outside layers, and plant them in soil!
How to Cut Onions Without Crying?
The best tip for cutting onions without crying is to make sure you have a very sharp knife. A dull blade will smash, instead of cut through, onion cells and make them release much more of the compound that causes your eyes to tear up.
Another tip is to freeze your onions for 10 to 15 minutes before cutting them, which will help the compound to freeze up and be less likely to get released into the air. But say, if you're making a lot (and I mean A LOT) of pickled, caramelized, or anything onions, I guess you might want to invest in a pair of onion goggles!
What Types of Onions are Best for...?
I consider onions a humble ingredient because of their affordability. Yet, they are also both versatile and essential in any kitchen. Without onion, your chicken soup, for example, might still be chicken soup, but it definitely won't taste the same!
- What are the best onion for soup? The best onions for traditional French onion soup are thinly sliced yellow onions.
- Which onion is best for meat? Yellow onions are one of the most versatile onions to add to a range of meat dishes that have been stir-fried, roasted, baked, or slow-cooked.
- What kind of onion is best for meat sauce? White or yellow onions are the best type of onion for making a meat sauce.
- What onion is best for steak? I like yellow or sweet onions cooked alongside my steak. Cippolini onions are also great caramelized as a side garnish.
- Which onion is best for beef roast? I like using yellow onions as they have a sweet edge that is complementary to roast beef. I once had roasted beef wellington with a side dish of caramelized yellow onions in a bourbon cream sauce. Oh yum, so delicious!
- What type of onions are used for pickling? Shallots, red, pink, and brown onions are often used for pickling. A great dish to make is Korean yangpa jangajji which pickles onions in soy sauce, sugar, and rice wine vinegar.
- What type of onions for burgers? The most popular types of onions for burgers are sliced rings of yellow, white, or red onions.
- What type of onions should I put on a homemade hamburger? Use cooked yellow onions, caramelized onions, or raw red onions for a bit of crunch and bite. Any onion that takes your fancy really!
- What type of onions for fajitas? Traditionally, red onions are used for fajitas. They add a lovely purplish color to the dish.
- Are yellow or white onions better for sauteing? I prefer yellow onions to saute as they help to build the flavor of the base of the dish.
- What kind of onions for dressing? There are so many different types of dressing, from an onion vinaigrette to a sweet onion dressing. One of my favorite dressings is made of yellow onions, soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, and grapeseed oil that is served over baby rocket, spinach, and watercress. Delicious!
- Which type of onions are best for cooking meat stews? The best onions for cooking dishes that take a long time to cook, such as meat stews, are yellow onions.
- What is the best type of onion to put on bagels? It all depends on what else you put on your bagel! If you want to make a smoked salmon and cream cheese bagel (my favorite!), use thin slices of red onion.
- What type of onion should be used in making corned beef and cabbage? The best onions are yellow onions as their flavor profile suits corned beef and cabbage best.
- What kind of onion is best in stir fry? The best onions for cooking in a stir fry are shallots, spring onions, yellow onions, scallions, and ramps.
- What is the best tasting raw onion? Out of the hard onions white, red, and sweet onions are the most popular types for eating raw. Of the leafy onions, the green tops of scallions and spring onions are the most popular.
- What is the best onion for chili? Yellow onions are my go-to for chili, but I use them interchangeably with red onions, white onions, or shallots.
- What is the best onion for pasta sauce? I prefer to add yellow onions to my pasta sauce base.
- What is the best onion for pizza? I always use yellow onions as they become sweeter and more mellow tasting as they are cooked.
- What is the best onion for salad? Red and white onions are great for salads due to their taste and for red onions, their look.
- What is the best onion for salsa? Red, white, and sweet onions are good for adding some spiciness and crunch to salsas.
- What is the best onion for sandwiches? Sweet, pearl and red onions are my favorites for using on a sandwich.
- What is the best onion for tacos? I like red onions for tacos due to their taste, crunch, and contrasting color.
- What is the best type of onion for onion rings? Sweet onions are good to use for onion rings as they are wide in shape. Yellow onions are also good as they are generally large in diameter and also hold their shape well.
- What is the best type of onion for stuffing? I like to use a yellow onion for traditional sage, celery, and thyme stuffing.
Best Onions for Cooking - Which Onions are the Healthiest for you?
What type of onions are the healthiest? Adding onions to your cooking is a good way of adding a healthy ingredient to your balanced diet.
Best Onions for Cooking - Conclusion
As many types of onions can be interchangeable in the kitchen, it is really hard to use the 'wrong' onion in your cooking. However, getting to know the best onions for cooking different dishes will improve your confidence in the kitchen and maximize the possibilities of their use.