Kids think an onion is just a stinky vegetable that makes you cry. (Okay, we grownups think that too sometimes.) But when you start cooking you realize an onion isn’t just an onion: it’s one of the kitchen’s most basic and important seasonings. When you get your own kitchen and you start making meals, you start to wonder: What are the names of different types of onions? What is the best onion for a hamburger? What is the best kind of diced onion for hot dogs, in salsa or for chow mein? The truth is, picking out the right onion is important and can make or break a dish.
There are a lot of varieties of onion but they are broken down into three primary categories:
For the sake of conversation, we will also discuss the green onion (also called scallions) and for good measure, we will throw in the shallot. Ever heard of leeks? They’re in the onion family too. Chives? Also a type of onion.
So which onion do you choose?
The variety of white onion includes white granex, snow white hybrid, and of course white onion. White onions can be served raw or cooked. White onions can also be helpful if you accidentally added too much garlic to your dish.
Pop the bun off your favorite burger and you might see versatile white onion as crisp, raw rings, or finely chopped hidden under the cheese. The succulent seared onion piled on your sizzling dish of fajitas are usually white onions, too. A white onion can be quite pungent so make sure that you fully enclose them when storing them in the fridge.
The variety of red onion includes red delicious, red hamburger and giant red hamburger. While this type of onion may not be the most common for a hamburger (ironically), it's pretty tasty. These onions are fantastic to eat raw with bar-b-que or chopped up in a salad. Red onions are tasty in salsa and also grill well on a shish kabob. They tend to stay sturdy and crisp even when heated.
The variety of yellow onion includes walla walla sweet, Vidalia, Texas super sweet, yellow hybrid, sweet and early hybrid, yellow Ebenezer, Savanah sweet, sweet Spanish hybrid, and Texas Grano. These are such versatile onions that they can be used in just about any type of food whether they are raw, sauteed, baked, or even used in French onion soup.
The yellow onion has an original sweet and tangy flavor. They are the most used in cooking of all types. Most onion rings are created out of the Vidalia onion because they are flat in shape and are a terrific flavor match for the batter.
The variety of green onions include scallions, white lisbon an evergreen long white. Green onions are harvested when they are young shoots. These are most often used in salads or diced up scallions on baked potatoes. They are a beautiful and tasty garnish on soups and a variety of meals.
Recipe using green onion:
Here's a fast cream cheese-based dip, great for holidays or ANY time, and pulled together in 10 minutes or less. The creamy richness is cut by the salty bacon and sweet sauce, and the green onion really makes this appetizer POP:
Andi's Easy "Any Day Is a Holiday" Dip
Serves 8-10 as an appetizer
Cook 8 slices of bacon until crisp. Pull out an 8 oz package of any flavor or style of cream cheese and place on a sizeable serving plate or low-sided bowl. Pour or spread onto the cream cheese a cup or so of ONE of the following:
Crumble the cooked bacon and sprinkle on top of the sauced cream cheese. Scissor or chop two or three lengths of green onion and add to the top and sides. That's it! Dip into this luscious appetizer with sturdy crackers, wavy-cut raw carrots, or even apple slices. It’s good meatless too, so just leave off the bacon if it’s not on hand. VY-OH-LAY! A fast and easy "I never go anywhere empty-handed" dish. 😋
Green onion tends to be sweet and mild in taste but can be stronger depending on when they are harvested. The green stalks and the white bulbs can both be eaten (just remove the little hairs on the white end). If using the white bulbs in a hot dish, I advise that you sautée them first. The green stalks are best if diced and served raw. Green onion is a bit more leathery than the average onion, so it doesn’t cook down and flavor sauces the way yellow or white onion might. They will wilt but retain their shape.
Leeks are also a type of green onion. It's important to separate and clean all of the leek before you begin preparing them for meals — they hold dirt like crazy. You also don’t want to boil leeks. Fry a leek so that they don’t become mushy. You can also eat the leek raw or add last to a soup pot so it retains its shape and flavor.
We love fresh the best, but we love to save time too. Get this full quart of dried leeks, already cleaned and cut.
Chives are often sold as herbs but they are members of the same family as onion and garlic. Slender, tender, and green, they are easy to grow on a windowsill, and are sold already cut (you might see them hanging in your grocer's produce section), as living plants that you trim as needed, or dried. I have some dried chives in a jar in my fridge right now that I keep tightly closed and they’ve lasted for months. They make a great potato topping.
Great for beginners or kids who want to try their hand at growing chives and other herbs at home
What do shallots taste like?
Shallots are tender-crisp and taste like a mild combination of garlic and onion. The bulbs are used in French recipes quite often to create sauces or top a steak. They are a delight to cook with but are quite pricey. If you run across a recipe that calls for shallots but you don’t want to pay that price, you can substitute yellow onion. Cooking with shallots is a real treat because they add such wonderful fragrance and taste to a dish but they are pricey.
While I love to cook with shallots, I do find them a bit difficult to handle. They are small and a bit slippery and unwieldy to hold and cut. This is why I tend to use a slicer like this one.
When prepping a meal there are so many different types of onions to choose from — some can be used interchangeably (I've used every onion imaginable in a tossed green salad, for example) — but some are better staying in their own lane. The onions listed above are not an exhaustive list but they do give you a good feel for the varieties of onion and how they are used.
Finally, I wish that I could end this article with a terrific tip for cutting onions without crying but I haven’t found one that works consistently for us yet. If you have one, please let me know.