There are dozens of onion varieties and as many uses for the different types of onions. How many types of onions are you familiar with?
Most of us are familiar with the common yellow onion that is so prevalent in grocery stores. You may also have eaten red onions or white onions, but there are so many more onion varieties to choose from.
Some varieties of onions taste better when eaten raw, and some work best in French onion soup. Some types of onions are great in cocktails and others do the job best in salsa.
One thing that most (but not all) onions have in common is that they will make you cry!
Onions and garlic are member of the genus Allium. They have been grown and cultivated for thousands of years. Their natural origin is the Near East and Central Asia.
Onions are easy to grow. They like a long cold period to produce bulbs and most onions take patience since the growing action happens underground.
Did you know that you can grow onions from their parts and pieces? This makes them a fun vegetable to try to grow to introduce children to gardening. I’ve written some articles on this topic. Check them out here:
- Growing onions indoors
- Re-grow Spring onions in water
- Growing Spring onions
- Growing Chives (a member of the onion family)
- Growing onion bottoms
- Growing onions vertically
- Tips for growing shallots
Onion Varieties and How to Use Them in Recipes
Onions have the rare ability to be sweet, pungent, aromatic and savory all at the same time. This makes them the ideal addition to all sorts of recipes, from baked onion rings to caramelized onions.
You can use them raw in salads and they make a great addition to any stir fry recipe. In order to get the most flavor out of onions, though, it pays to know about the different varieties and how to use them properly in recipes.
Read on to discover some types of onions (and the uses) you may not have experienced before.
Common kitchen items are the normal yellow onions that you find in most supermarkets when shopping. They are also called “brown onions” because of their skin color. You often find them in mesh bags at an inexpensive price.
These onions are the staples of the kitchen when it comes to onion varieties. They are an all-purpose onion and probably one that you use most of the time.
Yellow onions are nicely balanced with pungency and sweetness. The longer you cook them, the sweeter they become. This makes them a good choice for caramelization.
This type of onion is fairly large with a tough outer skin and meaty layers. We consider this the all-purpose onion, and personally, it’s the one I use most often. They are delicious when used to make rice fritters.
Yellow onions have a nice balance of astringency and sweet in their flavor, becoming sweeter the longer they cook. They are usually fist-sized with a fairly tough outer skin and meaty layers.
Yellow onions hold up well in cooking, making them ideal candidates for soups and stews. If you don’t have the onion called for in a recipe, yellow onions can be a good substitute.
If you are looking for an onion with a more pungent flavor, try using white onions. These onions have thinner skins and a more papery skin. Often the green stalk is still attached.
White onions have a high water content. The makes them very crisp. This texture makes them great for salsas, chutney recipes and other raw onion ideas.
It’s common to use white onions in Mexican cuisine. Check out this ground turkey chili for a low fat Mexican recipe using white onions.
Since white onions are good used raw, they are often used in guacamole and salsa recipes like this pineapple salsa.
Another good choice for recipes where raw onions are called for are red onions. These onions have a mild flavor and deep purple skin.
Red onions are less meaty and also less tender than yellow onions. They can be cooked but if you do so, you’ll lose the lovely red color which becomes washed out during the cooking process.
Use red onions in salads, salsas and as topping on burgers and sandwiches to enjoy their mild flavor. Their use always adds a splash of color to the dishes you use them in.
This black bean salad with corn and tomatoes is a delicious Mediterranean recipe using red onions that I prepare often.
This type of onions has a pale yellow skin. They are larger than yellow onions and their skin is less opaque. Some common varieties of sweet onions include Walla Walla, Vidalia onions and Maui Onions.
Sweet onions are missing the sharp pungent taste of other onions and really do taste quite sweet. They taste best when thinly sliced and used on top of salads or in layers on sandwiches.
This type of onion sometimes has a squashed or flattened appearance. Since sweet onions are more perishable, you should store them in the refrigerator.
If you are looking for onions to use in a recipe that features their flavor (such as onion soup), or for caramelizing purposes, sweet onions are the way to go. The also make great onion rings.
Common types of Sweet Onions:
Vidalia onions are a type of sweet onion. They lack the sharp taste of normal onions and are great on sandwiches. If you want to use raw onions in a dish, vidalia onions are the way to go.
Walla Walla Onions have a complex, sweet flavor. Use them on sandwiches and salads, or even pizzas. They can be eaten raw or just lightly cooked.
Maui Onions are sweet and juicy and are great sliced and made into onion rings. You can also use them in salads and on sandwiches and they are great caramelized as well.
These onions are named because they are a smaller onion grown on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
There are a few types of Bermuda onions. Contrary to popular opinion, they are not red onions, OR a sweet Spanish onion. They are a type of sweet onion grown on the Island of Bermuda.
Bermuda onions used to be one of the most popular onions in the USA but sweet onions from Texas have displaced them in use.
Bermuda onions have a flat top and a sweet flavor and they can have either a white or yellow skin. Some newer varieties also have a red skin.
These onions are great in grilled recipes and their flavor is very mild.
Spanish onions are a particular type of yellow onion that are slightly sweeter and more delicate in flavor than normal yellow onions.
They are more tender than normal yellow onions and have a thinner and more papery looking skin.
Use Spanish onions in any recipe that calls for onions. They are great in Italian sauces and perfect for onion rings. Spanish onions are a good substitute for Bermuda onions.
Specialty Types of Onions
The onion varieties above are the most commonly known and used ones, but there are many other types as well.
An Italian heirloom variety of onions, favored because of their unusual shape, torpedo onions are one of the most famous varieties of onions from Italy. The onion is originally from Tropea, a Calabrian town.
This onion is used to enhance the flavor of recipes and has a delicate and mild flavor with a slightly sweet taste. Not surprisingly, they are often used in Italian Cooking.
Are also known as salad onions, bunching onions, Welsh onions and spring onions. In fact, each type has minor differences.
These onions produce long edible green tops instead of the normal large heads that we think of for onions. Some have heads that never bulge and others have a more pronounced head, but still nothing like a normal onion.
Scallions are great in salads because they have a less intense flavor. They can be eaten raw or cooked. The majority of the onion flavor is in the white head.
Depending on the type they can have a more or less rounded head. Scallions are popular in Mexican and Chinese Dishes and are often found in soups and stir fries.
Mild and sweet, these small onions are perfect for pickling. They are delicious eaten whole and and can be roasted or glazed and are nice used in stews.
They are normally 1/2 to 1 1/2 inch in size. Most pearl onions are white but you can also find them with yellow and red skins. One of the best things about pearl onions is that no chopping (and no crying) is necessary. Just peel and use whole.
Pearl onions are also the perfect size to use in cocktails as a garnish. A cocktail onion is a pearl onion that has been pickled in brine with small amounts of paprika and turmeric.
A shallot has a similar flavor to an onion but it is richer, and sweeter. Instead of forming one bulb, it grows in clusters like garlic does. Shallots often have several bulbs attached to a base.
Some shallots have coppery colored skins and off white flesh, tinged with purple. Others have deep purple skins. Shallots look like small elongated onions.
The flavor of shallots has a hint of garlic to it and it lacks the bite that you get with onions. This makes them perfect in salads and dressings.
If you can’t find shallots at your grocery store, there are several substitutes that you can use for them.
Other members of the Allium Family
Onions are a member of the allium family but are not the plant in this family. Several other plants have onion like tastes but are used differently in recipes.
While most onions are grown for their bulbs, chives are grown for their leafy green stalks. You will find chives in the grocery store near other fresh herbs.
Chives look a bit like a spring onion but have a much thinner stem. You can use chives and spring onions interchangeably.
In culinary terms, chives are classified as a herb. They are often used as a garnish in dishes. Chives are often used in French cooking.
Chives are a perennial herb and are very easy to grow. See my tips for growing chives here.
One type of onion that is overlooked is also the most versatile. Leeks are used for both the long green stalks and the white bulb end.
Leeks look a lot like overgrown spring onions. They have a much milder and more delicate flavor than an onion does.
They are great in soups and stocks and make a nice side dish for meats. Leeks go particularly well with bacon.
And we can’t forget one of the most commonly used members of the allium family – garlic. These two plants have different flavors but are often used together in many recipes to give flavor to the base of the dish.
Even though they are related to onions, garlic is generally considered to be a herb. Unpeeled garlic does not have much of an aroma, but ones the clove is cut a pungent odor is released.
Garlic that has been sauteed or roasted is quite sweet. See my tips for planting garlic here.
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Using Onions in Cooking
There are many varieties of onions and onion- like members of the allium family. Each has its own distinctive taste and look and they are used differently in recipes.
- Print out this list for using onions and attach it to the inside of a cupboard door to help with choosing the right type of onion for different recipes.
ALL PURPOSE ONIONS:
- Walla Walla
- White oniones
BEST RAW ONIONS
- Red onions
MILD FLAVORED ONIONS
- Red onions
- Torpedo onions
- Chives (used for garnish)
BEST FOR PICKLING
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Friday 29th of April 2022
I wish you would show the alliums growing outside in garden soil at various stages, in order to see the whole plant, including blooms.
Friday 29th of April 2022
Hi Leonora, this was a post explaining the various types and how to use them, but I'll put you suggestion on my writing prompts calendar for a future article.
Thursday 27th of August 2020
Please add the images of Bombay red and Texas grano Thanks
Thursday 27th of August 2020
Growing onion takes a small piece of land.and the out come is much
Friday 8th of November 2019
Growing onions for tops requires less patients and less space then growing for bulbs...this is something i have learn from your blog today
Wednesday 14th of August 2019
Very in detail coverage on Onion varieties. My kitchen knowledge got a good bump.
Friday 19th of April 2019
Thank you very much for covering this topic i feel like aim ready to prepare my kitchen garden right way anyway thank you for sharing the tips the article was very helpful..cheers and also keep up the nice work