If most people were asked to name their favorite vegetable, few would answer onions. They’re not the prettiest vegetable in the kitchen, and their pungent odor has the potential to make your eyes weep. But where would a cook be left without onions? The simple answer is: lost.
Onions are ‘the king of vegetables’ – they’ve been used as a food flavoring longer than any other vegetable. It's important to understand that there are different onion types that all have their place in the kitchen. If you're not up to scratch on the various varieties then keep reading; you'll discover how each type of onion differs and their best uses in recipes.
7 common types of onions
1. Red Onions
Also known as Italian onions, these are mild-flavored onions with a slightly sweet taste and an attractive appearance. They’re widely available in most supermarkets.
Best for: thinly slice and add raw to salads and antipasto dishes.
2. Yellow Onions
Also known as brown onions, these are a commonly found brown-skinned variety. They are an excellent all-round ingredient with a strong flavor and pungent aroma.
Best for: most dishes including pickling, casseroles, sauteed, roasted, boiled. The options are endless.
3. White Onions
This variety comes in a wide range of shapes and sizes. Smaller white onions are delicious added whole to sauces, stews, and pot roasts. The larger version varies from mild through to a sharp, pungent in flavor.
Best for: As versatile as the brown onion, they are also a good substitute for pearl onions in cooking.
4. Vidalia Onions
Named after a town in Georgia, these onions are pale yellow in color and large. Being sweet and juicy, they are are a popular onion.
Best for: Roasted or in salads raw.
5. Spring Onions
These onions are harvested young so that the shoots are still green. They’re mild in taste: both the stalk and bulb are suitable for eating.
Best for: Chopped into salads, on baked potatoes, added to eggs, or stir-frys.
6. Bermuda Onions
Bermuda onions are a similar size to Spanish onions and are often confused for the red variety. However, they are a separate onion that has a mild flavor, a white or yellow skin, and a squat appearance.
Best for: Serve fried slices with burgers and steak.
7. Spanish Onions
These onions have a lovely copper color and are significantly larger than other more common varieties such as the yellow onion. Their flavor is delicate and sweet.
Best for: Serve thinly sliced, raw in salads, baked or stuffed whole.
How to choose a good onion
Onions get picked in spring and summer, so this is the best time to buy them sweeter and slightly milder – perfect for salads. Interestingly, the onions purchased in fall and winter are from the same crops. However, the farmer will leave the onions in the ground several weeks longer, allowing the onion to grow bigger, reduce in moisture and develop a thicker skin. These have a stronger flavor and aroma; cook them for best results.
Choose firm onions that are free from bruising and have shiny skins. Avoid them if you see wet spots or they look overly dry.
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How to peel an onion
- Peel away the outer skin, which is papery, with your hands.
- Use a paring knife or chef’s knife to cut off the stem as well as most of the root (leave a little intact).
- Cut the onion in half.
- Hold a paring knife like you would a peeler and carefully peel back a layer. Once removed, if the onion still looks like it has some tough skin, peel back another layer.
- Repeat step four with the other half of the onion.
Technique: Finely Dice
There’s an easy way and a hard way to chop onions finely. This method is the easy way, and it will allow you to cut uniform-sized pieces so that the onion is cooked at the same time.
If you prefer to see the technique in action, check out our video on how to dice an onion.
The secret is to peel the onion, leaving the root intact, so that the onion stays in one piece as you chop. Once peeled, follow these steps:
- Slice the onion in half lengthways, so that the root gets cut in half.
- Take one half of the onion and place the flat side down.
- Slice the onion vertically, stopping just short of the root. If you want tiny pieces slice closer together.
- Placing your hand on the top of the onion, carefully make three horizontal slices, making sure to stop before reaching the root.
- Finally, hold the onion together and make another set of vertical slices so that you end up with finely diced onion.
- Repeat these steps with the other half of the onion.
The first time you try this technique, it may seem time-consuming. Stick with it though. After a few onions, you’ll find it’s a rapid method, and the result is much better than other options.
If you can dice an onion then slicing will be a cinch. You can watch our video on how to slice an onion for a simple demonstration on the correct technique.
- Cut onion in half lengthways then remove the outer skin.
- Place the onion on a chopping board, flat side down.
- Use the tip of a paring knife or chef's knife to cut even slices.
For savory courses, there are few dishes where onions, or their cousins the leek, garlic or shallots, are not used. They are versatile enough to be boiled, blanched, sauteed, roasted or fiercely fried. The onion is even used as the hero of a dish – think classics like French onion soup or onion tarts. The French have made these meals for centuries, and for good reason. The taste is exceptional.
Here are two commonly used cooking techniques, ideal for even the most novice home cook.
- Peel and slice the onions.
- Add butter or oil to a skillet on medium to high heat. The amount of butter should be about 1 Tbsp for each medium-sized onion.
- Add chopped onions to the skillet and cook, frequently stirring, for five minutes or until tender.
- Peel onions and trim ends with a paring knife.
- Add onions to a pot of salted boiling water for 30-45 minutes or until the layers are falling apart.
- Pour onions into a strainer to remove water.
- Serve onions with salt, pepper and a knob of butter mixed through.
How do I store onions?
Store onions in a cool, dry area. Avoid storing in the fridge or in plastic bags.
How long do onions last?
Fresh onions will last 1-2 months in summer. This shelf life can extend to 4 months in winter. Peeled or chopped onions will last one week if kept refrigerated, in a sealed plastic bag.
How do I cut onions without crying?
Place a glass of water next to your chopping board – the onion juices will be attracted to the moisture in the glass rather than your eyes. If you’re in a hurry or don’t have a vessel handy, try simply opening your mouth!
Onions may not be the prettiest vegetable in the kitchen, but they are worth their weight in gold. They’re a crucial ingredient in a huge number of dishes, and their hearty aroma is hard to beat once you start cooking.
It's essential to have a basic understanding of the common onion types. They all vary in taste, looks, and even aroma; learning the best use for each variety will undoubtedly improve your cooking.
Learning a few simple techniques will make your onion experience a lot more enjoyable. Dicing onions can be frustrating, but it doesn’t need to be. Using the method mentioned in this article will reduce your prep time and result in perfectly sized onion pieces.
Do you have a technique to chop onions that we haven’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comment section below. We’d love to hear from you!