Which Onions Are Best for Every Type of Dish?

Find out here if you're cooking with the right variety.

Have you ever found yourself in the middle of the produce section staring at onions and wondering which type you need for fresh salsa? Or perhaps which ones are best to caramelize? It even becomes hazy when you have red onions on hand but your recipe calls for yellow. 

To help with these all-too-common dilemmas, we tapped the pros to clear things up. We turned to author and chef Robin Bashinksy, along with Food & Wine’s former senior food editor and author, Mary-Frances Heck, to get the scoop on onions. Here are seven common onions you can pretty much find at any grocery store, and what they’re best used for.

Related:What's the Difference Between White, Yellow, and Red Onions?

What Is an Onion?

As an allium — like shallots, garlic, and scallions — onions are classified as a vegetable. Their bulbs store nutrients to ensure the plant’s survival, making them very nutrient-dense veggies. Onions are low in calories, but high in fiber, vitamin C, calcium, and iron. And they act as a prebiotic to feed the good bacteria in your gut for better overall health. Talk about a powerhouse vegetable.

How to Choose the Right Type of Onion in Recipes

Though most alliums are known for their flavor-enhancing abilities in dishes, they aren’t all created equal. And you can’t always swap one type of onion for another (unless you want to drastically change the taste of your food!) Here’s how to use every type of allium like a pro.


<p>A_M_Radul/Getty Images</p>

A_M_Radul/Getty Images

Great cooked or raw, these guys are surprisingly versatile. Use uncooked shallots for a mellow and sweet flavor in our favorite vinaigrette or fried and sprinkled on soup, salad, noodle dishes, and more. Aside from adding a nice flavor or satisfying crunch, shallots are also fantastic when roasted.

Cipollini Onions

Larger than pearl onions, but smaller and flatter than the onion you probably have sitting on your kitchen counter, cipollini onions are best when cooked. They “become super sweet, creamy, and have a depth of umami to them when they're cooked,” says Heck. Although they are great in an agrodolce or as a side dish, they are a bit more sturdy when cooked than pearl onions.

Related:Here's How Long Onions Last if You Store Them Properly

Pearl Onions

Elise Bauer
Elise Bauer

These guys can be a little tricky to peel, but they are worth the extra attention. Although elegant enough to stand alone as a side dish, pearl onions are also delicious in almost any sauce. If you’re not up for the challenge to peel all the little pearl onions before tackling dinner, frozen ones won’t disappoint.

Related:How to Make Restaurant-Style French Onion Soup at Home

Sweet Onions

Elisa Cicinelli / Getty Images
Elisa Cicinelli / Getty Images

The mildest and sweetest of the bunch (hence the name), sweet onions are best to use when you’re looking for a slight onion flavor that won’t overpower your dish. Not particularly sturdy, they will turn to mush if they are cooked too high or for too long. We suggest sauteeing them for 2-3 minutes before throwing them together with some fresh tomatoes, basil, salt, and pepper for an easy pasta sauce, or using them in your favorite stir-fry.

White Onions

(Photo: Francesco Messuri/Shutterstock)
(Photo: Francesco Messuri/Shutterstock)

If you love Mexican food, this is your go-to onion. With a bite that doesn’t linger for too long, they add an onion-y brightness without overpowering other flavors. White onions are delicious when used raw—especially in salsa, salads, or sprinkled on tacos as a garnish.

Yellow Onions

(Photo: Thanthip Homs/Shutterstock)
(Photo: Thanthip Homs/Shutterstock)

Deemed as a “good general use onion” by Bashinsky, their flavor profile falls right between that of sweet and red onions. The relatively high starch content of these workhorse onions means they are able to withstand high and long cooking times without falling apart. Yellow onions are ideal for flavorful dishes that have to cook for a while, such as bolognese.

Related:What Is a Vidalia Onion and What Does It Taste Like?

Red Onions

Often eaten raw, these onions have a bit of a punch that can stand their ground in strongly flavored dishes. If you’re looking for a bit of a kick (and color), their peppery flavor profile makes them the perfect addition to your favorite salsa or fresh salad. Since they do have such a pungent flavor, you can even toss them on the grill without worrying about the smoky goodness overpowering their onion tang.

But don’t stop there! Cooked red onions mellow out and become super sweet. Let them mingle with oil for a few minutes in a frying pan for a salad topper that will liven up your healthy greens with sweet flavor and beautiful color.