6 Types of Onions and How to Use Them

Many recipes from soups to savory pies call for an onion. Here's a simple guide to picking the right variety for every dish.

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Alliums (onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, ramps) are a staple in every home cook’s kitchen. Whether they’re tucked into a quiche or caramelized and folded into mac and cheese, different types of onions can add immense flavor to any dish. Choosing the right one for whatever you’re cooking will help you achieve the best (and most delicious) results. Here’s a simple guide to understanding what each type of onion has to offer. By the way, here’s how to cut an onion without crying.

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Large onion harvest in a wicker basket.

Yellow Onions

Good for: All recipes—especially carmelizing

If a recipe doesn’t specify what type of onion to use, your safest bet is a yellow onion. “Yellow onions are your standard cooking onion. I always reach for a yellow onion unless I have some other reason to reach for something else,” says Kim Reddin, the director of public and industry relations for the National Onion Association. “The yellows hold up extremely well over that process of caramelizing because it is a long, slow heat.” Here are more ways to cook with yellow onions.

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Sweet onions
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Sweet Onions

Good for: Salads, relishes, garnishes

Popular sweet onions include Vidalias, Walla Wallas and Mauis. “These well-known varieties have a pale yellow skin. The inside may look white but they are yellow,” says Reddin, who fields questions about onions as The Onionista. If you’re looking for an onion that tastes amazing raw in salads, relishes or chopped as a garnish, go for sweet onions. “They just have that mild onion flavor with a touch of sweetness that you can use in a number of things.” Try our tried-and-true sweet onion recipes.

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Red onions
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Red Onions

Good for: Salads, grilling and pickling

Red onions are ubiquitous on salads, sandwiches and other raw preparations partly because of their appealing deep-purple color. Reddin warns, however, “Red onions, specifically, can have a really peppery, spicy flavor to them.” This variety is sweetest from March to September. Red onions pair well with equally strong-flavored greens such as kale or arugula. Reddin also recommends red onions for roasting, grilling and pickling. Check out our favorite red onion recipes.

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White onions
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White Onions

Good for: Mexican dishes and grilling

White onions it the type of onion you’ll usually find in prepared salads (potato and macaroni salads, for instance) and traditionally in Mexican cuisine. “White onions can be strong but they tend to have less aftertaste,” Reddin says. Their slightly sweet taste adds to fresh salsas, guacamole, ceviche and tacos. They’re also commonly served up in barbecue establishments with a plate of meat, pickle and sides. Try our simple technique for caramelized onions.

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Good for: Sauces and dressings

Shallots have a mild onion flavor. These bulb-shaped alliums taste like a garlic-onion hybrid. In French cooking, shallots are used in vinaigrettes and sauces, as well as on top of steak. When a recipe calls for a shallot and you don’t have one, you can likely substitute another type of onion for it. Try some of our savory shallot recipes.

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Good for: Asian and Mexican cooking and garnishes

These two-tone onions can be eaten cooked or raw. Scallions are popular in Chinese and Mexican cuisine. In Chinese cooking, scallions are used in stir-fries, soups, stews and braised dishes. Scallions or green onions have a milder flavor than regular onions. Use your scallions up in one of these scallion recipes.

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sweet onion bulbs at the farmers market place
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How to Purchase and Store Onions

Purchase firm onions that are free of blemishes. The papery orbs shouldn’t have a scent. Onions should be stored in a cool, dark place with plenty of ventilation, according to the National Onion Association. Avoid storing whole unpeeled onions in the refrigerator.

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Slicing onion on cutting board in kitchen. Cooking image.
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Tame the Flavor

To tame the pungent flavor of raw onion, Reddin recommends slicing very thinly—ideally using a mandolin. Or you can soak onion slices in cold water for as long as overnight to tone down their potency. Next, read up on all the onion recipes you’ll ever need.

Joann Pan
Joann Pan is a content creator based in New York City. Her work has appeared on Oprah.com, Mashable.com, The Huffington Post and more.