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Red, White or Sweet – How Do I Choose the Right Onion?

I was in Oaxaca as part of a chef’s cooking intensive about 20 years ago. One of the most important tips I came away with wasn’t a new cooking method, or even my introduction to a new ingredient. It was that in Mexico, white onions are king. 

For years I had been reaching for red onions when making guacamole or pico de gallo, or really any dish that I imagined was Mexican in nature. While generally tasty, when I made the switch to white onions, my meals began to taste much more authentic.

Admittedly, on the occasion that I open my fridge and only have one onion left in the drawer, for the most part, no matter the dish, I’ll use it. Everything will be just fine. However, there’s no denying that – red, white, yellow or sweet – certain cuisines and specific dishes are indeed superior when made using the correct variety of onion.

Here’s the low down on onions to help you select:

Yellow Onions

Yellow onions are the workhorse of the kitchen. The basic, do it all onion for building flavor. If you’re making a soup, sauce, chili, stock or anything that calls for onion and doesn’t specify the type, chances are a yellow onion is the best one for the job. They tend to have a sweet, mellow flavor and can be used in the widest variety of dishes and cuisines. 

Try yellow onions in my One-pot Pizza Beans

Red Onions

Red onions have a sharp, strong flavor. Though certain dishes call for raw red onion, they are used sparingly as they can be overpowering in this form. One way to tame their potency without cooking them is a quick pickle. In this method, a sliced or chopped onion is allowed to sit in vinegar for a few minutes. Quick pickled onion can then be used to top tacos, burgers or salads.

Red onions also hold their shape well, and are a go-to choice for grilling or using in kebabs. 

I adore caramelizing red onions, where they are cooked low and slow in a skillet for up to an hour. After seasoning with salt and sautéing them in olive oil, I’ll sometimes add a splash of balsamic vinegar at the end of cooking for a hit of bright acidity set against the sweetness of the caramelized onion. This creates a jammy condiment you can use in a variety of ways, such as atop burgers, in grilled cheese, or alongside roasted poultry.

Try caramelized red onions in this Acorn Squash Skillet Pizza

Sweet Onions

Sweet onions are seasonal, therefore will not be available year-round. You may see them called Vidalia, Walla Walla or Maui onions. They are less pungent, have a higher water content, and as the name suggests, a sweeter flesh. This makes them perfect for using raw. Slice them into a fresh tomato and peach salad in the summer with torn basil and a drizzle of olive oil, or slow cook them to concentrate their sweetness. 

Sweet onions are excellent in this French Onion Pasta Bake

White Onions

White onions are crisp, mild and sweet, and are a great choice for using raw in salads and salsas. As noted, many Mexican dishes, such as fresh and cooked salsas, soups and more, will benefit from using white onions. The best basic guacamole simply mashes together chopped onions, jalapeno and tomato with a bit of salt, then mixes in creamy avocado and a sprinkling of cilantro. 

Try white onions in this fresh salsa, Corn, Black Bean & Nectarine Dip


Shallots are commonly used in Thai cuisine as a base for curry pastes, but are also popular globally for their sweet and perfumed qualities. Some say there is a hint of garlic to their flavor profile. Because they are more mellow than other types of onions, they are a top choice for using in vinaigrettes. When making dressings, I always allow them to sit in whichever acid (vinegar or citrus juice) I am using for a few minutes to dampen any undesirable sharpness. Then will move along with adding the remaining ingredients. 

Roasting shallots in the oven along with vegetables or other ingredients is also fantastic. Like in this sweet and savory topping for fish: Sheet Pan Salmon with Roasted Grapes & Shallots

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