Onion Varieties and What to Do if You Don’t Have the Right Type

How often do you use onions in your cooking? If you cook regularly, the answer is likely 5- 7 times a week!onions

The common onion is a household staple that’s been one of the most commonly used foods throughout the world for over 3,500 years.  And for good reason – not only are onions easy to grow and add flavor and texture to cooking, they’re also very nutritious.

The National Onion Association lists various research studies indicating benefits include the prevention and treatment of common diseases like cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cataracts, osteoporosis, asthma and allergies. That’s pretty impressive.  And even for people like me, who don’t like raw onions, there are plenty of nutritional benefits to be had from cooked onions.  

Even though they may lead us to tears and leave our hands a little smelly, it’s worth exploring these gems in more detail.  After two videos on slicing and dicing onions, you’ll find a list of common onion varieties and which variety is best for which job.

How to Dice Onions

For one or two diced onions, check out this video where my daughter and I demonstrate our favorite technique for How to Dice Onions.

Here’s the written instructions to go with the video:

Peel rough papery bits off onion.
Cut the onion in half from root to tip.
Slice tip off, then peel remainder of skin.
Place flat side down.
Cut 5-6 horizontal slices, leaving the root intact.
Cut 5-6 vertical slices, leaving root intact.
Slice across to dice.

Did you know you can also dice or slice a whole batch of onions at one time and freeze them? Check out this video on Chopping Onions with Food Processor. For written details read How to Chop and Freeze Onions.

Onion Varieties

My mom was a no fuss cook.  She prepared meals based on what was available; in this case, yellow onions.  Salads, dips, dressings, sauces, soups, entrees, sides, sandwiches, breakfast, lunch and dinner all featured the yellow onion.  There was one exception – springtime.

yellow onion and how to use them

The time when chives and green onions were available in the garden.  Oh, how I loved spring cooking when that harsh onion flavor in salads and dips was replaced with the much milder flavor of chives and green onions.  It was my first lesson on choosing the right onion for the right job.

Yellow Onions
– an all purpose, versatile cooking onion (eg. Spanish onion)
– strong pungent flavour and smell
– their high sugar content makes them sweeter when cooked, ie. an excellent choice for caramelizing
– best choice for storagewhen and how to use red onions
– have the highest sulfur content, which means it’s most likely to induce tears
– best choice for onion soup and most cooked dishes

 Red Onions
– crisp onion flavor with beautiful purple color
– best used in raw dishes like salads and sandwiches
– red color gets washed out if cooked too long
– if not over-done, red onions are great on the grill

White OnionsWhen and How to Use White Onions
– crispier and more pungent than yellow onions
– a higher water content means they have a shorter storage life
– excellent for cooking
– become more tender and less noticeable when cooked
– often used in Mexican cooking eg. salsa


Sweet OnionsWhen and how to use sweet onions
– look similar to yellow varieties with a golden brown papery skins
– often sold under the name Vidalia, Walla Walla or Maui
– typically available from April to August in North America
– mild, sweet and crisp
– high water content makes them more perishable, ie. not great for storing
– less pungent due to lower sulfur content, ie. fewer tears and less pungent flavor/smell
– great for use in raw dishes like salads, sandwiches, or burgers

ShallotsWhen and how to use shallots
– sweet, mild flavored
– grow in clusters like garlic bulbs, but sold as individual cloves
– their smaller size and softening when cooked, make them ideal for sauces, gravies and other dishes where you want onion flavor without the texture
– good for vinaigrettes, salads and other dishes where just a bit of onion flavor is needed


Scallions/Green OnionsWhen and How to use Scallions or Green Onions
– scallions and green onions are the same thing
– long hollow green leaves, without a fully developed root bulb (onion)
– mild onion flavor
– typically used raw or lightly cooked
– ideal in salads, dips, Asian cooking or in finishing a dish such as soup, stew or pasta

What if You Don’t Have the Right Onion?

I do believe there are some recipes where it matters what type of onion you choose.  However, you don’t have to be fanatical about it; substitutions are possible. Just think about what the onion is suppose to offer to a particular recipe.

For overall flavor in a cooked dish – just about any onion will do, if you don’t have any – use other strong flavored spices like curry, garlic, peppers

For just a hint of onion flavor – substitute with another mild flavored onion, use smaller quantities, use onion powder or reduce the pungency by soaking in water for 1 hour before using

For texture – consider using cabbage or shredded carrots combined with onion or garlic powder

For sweetness – use a combination of shredded carrots and onion powder

Have you tried all of these varieties?  Do you have a favorite?

How to choose and use the right onion variety

Sign up to get articles by Getty delivered to your inbox. You’ll get recipes, practical tips and great food information like this. Getty is a Professional Home Economist,  speaker and writer putting good food on tables and agendas.  She is the author of Manitoba’s best-selling Prairie Fruit Cookbook, Founder of Fruit Share, a mom and veggie gardener.

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