8 Types of Onions—And How to Use Them to Add Unbeatable Flavor to Recipes
Available by the bushel, by the bag, or by the bulb, onion varieties are among the most affordable, sturdy, and versatile stars of the produce aisle. That's because the different types of onions showcase a wide variety of flavors and textures. The allium family, which onions are a part of, is a genus of pungent plants that range from garlic to green onions to white onions and beyond.
No matter which onion family plant you pick, aim to stock up on firm ones that are blemish-free with little to no distinguishable scent when whole. Store onion family vegetables of all kinds in a cool, dark place that's well ventilated. Only refrigerate once peeled.
Sliced or chopped, grated or minced, each different type of onions can add a unique flavor dimension to your dish. Opting for the onion variety best suited for the job will ensure the best (and most tasty) finished product. Read on to learn about eight of the most common types of onions and uses for each.
8 Different Types of Onions and Uses for Each Onion Family Member
Keep in mind that our recommendations for onion family plant uses are merely suggestions. We adore the lovely rich and mellow quality of caramelized yellow onions, for example. But if you find through your own experimentation that you prefer caramelized red or white onions, of course feel free to go off script.
1. Red Onions
Great for: Salads, grilling, charring, roasting, pickling
Vibrant in color and among the sharpest and spiciest of all the types of onions, red onions are often featured in recipes in their raw form. (Prefer tamer flavors? Soak them in ice water for about 10 to 20 minutes to ease the bite.) They turn slightly jammy once cooked, and are a top choice when you're seeking an onion variety to pickle. Give them a go in our Tomato and Red Onion Salad, Wilted Greens and Lentil Bowls with Charred Red Onion, Tandoori Chicken Drumsticks and Roasted Red Onions, and Quick-Pickled Red Onions.
2. Yellow Onions
Great for: Pretty much any onion recipe, in particular ones that involve caramelizing
If a recipe just calls for "onion," chances are, the chef or recipe developer means this type of onion, also called brown onions or yellow globe onions. These are the most commonly-grown and sold onion variety in America. Although harsh when raw, yellow onions mellow out beautifully once caramelized (when they get equal parts sweet, savory, and all-around luscious), roasted, or sautéed. Thanks to their high starch content, they won't cook down into mush. Get your fix in our recipes for Caramelized Balsamic Onions, French Onion Soup, Caramelized Onion Risotto, and Tangy Sour Cream and Onion Dip.
3. White Onions
Great for: Central American and Mexican recipes, grilling
A slight bit milder than red or yellow onions, white onions are juicy and crunchy when served raw. Popular in toppings like salsa or guacamole or as a topping to tacos, barbecue fare, stews, and beyond, the ever-so-sweet aftertaste of this type of onion lingers beautifully. White onions are commonly utilized in the aromatic flavor bases of a wide variety of cuisines, from Italian sofrito to French mirepoix to the Cajun holy trinity. Try white onions in our Beef Birria or Caribbean Chili with Black Beans.
4. Sweet Onions
Great for: Garnishes, salads, relishes, frying
Think you hate onions—or making a dish for someone who does? This is the onion variety to try. Featuring a pale yellow skin and white interior, sweet onions live up to their name. As the result of having more water and less sulfur than the previous onion family plants, sweet onions are ideal for eating raw, using as a topping, or slicing into rings and frying. Subtypes of sweet onion varieties include Vidalia, Walla Walla, and Maui. Stock up and try them in Onion Rings, Shrimp Salad with Lime Dressing, Sweet Onion-Tomato Tartlets, and Fish with Crispy Bread Crumbs, Spinach, and Onions.
5. Green Onions
Great for: Asian recipes, Mexican recipes, garnishes, salads, braising, roasting, grilling
Softer, milder, and far taller than their bulbous onion family plant peers, green onions are herbaceous and delicious in both raw and cooked recipes. Also known as scallions, bunching onions, Chinese onions, and Welsh onions, they're white near the root and green at the opposite (leaf) end. Each part past the stem is edible so don't toss the white part! Although some cooks call these spring onions, those are actually their own, far less common onion variety. Spring onions are immature versions of yellow and red onions that are available only for a brief time during—you guessed it!—spring. Treat green onions like fresh herbs and wash and store in a damp paper towel-lined bag in the refrigerator. Showcase this onion variety in Roasted Green Onion Dip, Orange Salmon and Green Onions, and Ginger-Sesame Oats with Mushrooms and Charred Green Onions.
Great for: Sauces, dressings, pickling, roasting, sautéing, frying
Like your onion flavor on the less aggressive side? Opt for shallots, those copper-skinned bulbs that resemble petite red onions. Mildly oniony with a hint of garlic flavor, shallots are outstanding grated or diced and added to sauces or dressings, and are often fried and sprinkled (like itty-bitty unbattered onion rings) atop gourmet restaurant dishes. If you're worried about onion types and uses, and having the perfect onion for the job, don't sweat it. Shallots can stand in for pretty much any other onion variety, and vice versa. Our new favorite use for shallots? Our homemade Chili Crisp condiment. We also love it in everything from Citrus-Cucumber Slaw with Pickled Shallots and Mushroom Chips with Smoky Shallot Dip to Chicken Salad with Creamy Tarragon-Shallot Dressing and Mustard-Shallot Pork.
7. Pearl Onions
Great for: Stews, braising, roasting, glazing, cocktails
Also known as white cocktail onions, these small onions are larger than a pearl, true, but still quite compact since they're grown close together and harvested early. Imagine the little white orbs in a big pot of Julia Child or Ina Garten's coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon—those are the onion family plants we're talking about here. Find them in the produce aisle pre-peeled to save time, or for a long-lasting option, seek out this onion variety in the freezer section if you're planning to cook them! Be sure to stick with raw, however, if you plan to pickle them for a Gibson cocktail garnish. Give them a shot in our Pressure Cooker Braised Carrots and Pearl Onions, Beef with Mushrooms and Pearl Onions in Red Wine Reduction, Weeknight Boeuf Bourguignon, and Slow Cooker Coq au Vin.
Great for: Roasting, sautéing, sauces, dressings, pickling
Whether you buy it by the bulb, in peeled gloves, pre-sliced, minced, or even dried, garlic is technically part of the onion family. Many savory recipes start with minced, diced, smashed, or roasted cloves. Cooked garlic is fragrant and slightly sweet, and roasting it makes garlic even sweeter and ultra-creamy in texture. Put your garlic to great use in Baked Brie with Roasted Garlic, Clay Pot-Roasted Garlic, 12-clove Slow Cooker Lemon Garlic Chicken with Artichokes, and Roasted Garlic Pasta Sauce. No garlic? No sweat; try these garlic substitutes.