Cooking Tip #02

Difference Between Onions

There are five basic varieties of onion: Red, White, Yellow, Sweet and Shallots. When you see a recipe that calls for a yellow or red onion, you probably think you can just use whatever kind of onion you have hanging around the fridge in its place. But when some recipes call for a particular kind of onion, you might be surprised to hear that they actually MEAN that kind of onion.

Red, yellow, and white onions all vary slightly in flavor, texture, and color, but can usually be substituted for one another. In terms of cooking, they will all behave the same in the pan, but may have a slightly different taste.

Before going into the differences between your most common types of onions, how do you know which onion to buy at the store?

When buying onions, you should select ones that feel heavy in your hand and firm. Avoid soft onions or ones that have a sharp odor before peeling; these signs indicate that the onion is old. Except for sweet onions, all these onions can be stored for several weeks in a cool, dark pantry or cupboard.

Why are sweet onions stored differently? Well, read on to discover why and other crucial differences between common onion varieties.

Yellow Onions

More often than not, yellow onions are our go-to variety, kind of like an all-purpose onion. They tend to have a nice balance of astringency and sweet in their flavor, becoming sweeter the longer they cook.

Yellow onions are usually fist-sized and have a fairly tough outer skin and meaty layers that can be difficult to cut (and will almost always make you cry.) The most common variety in the store is the Spanish onion. We find this kind of yellow onion to be slightly sweeter and more delicate in flavor.

White Onions

At least these onions look a lot more distinct than other onions! White onions tend to have a sharper and more pungent flavor than yellow onions, and they also have a thinner, more papery skin. They can be cooked just like yellow onions, but they’re best minced and added to raw salsas and chutneys.

Sweet Onions

Sweet onions, also called California Vidalia Onions are trickier because they look very similar to your average yellow onion. While they may look similar, they taste entirely different than yellow onions do. They lack the sharp, astringent taste of other onions and really do taste sweet.

Typically, these are what you’ll enjoy thinly sliced on top of sandwiches. They can range in color from white to yellow and often have a flattened or squashed appearance. Sweet onions tend to be more perishable than other varieties and should be stored in the refrigerator, unlike their fellow onions.

Red Onions

With their deep purple outer skin and reddish flesh, these are really the black sheep (or more appropriately the purple sheep) in the onion family.

Despite the fact that they look so different, red onions are fairly similar to yellow onions in flavor, though their layers are slightly less tender and meaty. They tend to lean more towards the sour-end of the flavor spectrum. Red onions are most often used in salads, salsas, and other raw preparations for their lovely color and relatively mild flavor.

A quick tip: if you find the flavor of red onions too astringent for eating raw, as many do, try soaking them in water before serving.


For a long time, shallots just confused us. They look like garlic but taste like sweet onions, and they’re finicky to peel on top of everything else! Why would we want to cook with them?

Shallots have actually become our top choice for most preparations calling for raw onions. They are sweeter and milder than either yellow or red onions, and have a pleasant crispness in salad dressings and grain salads.

We also think shallots are a great choice if you’re trying to convince onion-haters to give alliums a try. They add just the right amount of subtle pungency to dishes without as much of that overpowering onion flavor that turns some people off. Also, gently cooked shallots become as sweet as candy and are a revelation to people who’ve never had them before!

Shallots are also quite handy for when we only want a few tablespoons of onion for our dish. Because shallots grow in cloves, it’s easy to break off just what we need, and the other cloves will still keep for several weeks. Plus, the thin layers of a shallot mean that mincing is real easy!


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