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Roots of Flavor

Armed with just a little knowledge, you can up your kitchen game and feel good knowing you can confidently select, cook, and store onions of all types.

Article
Tiffany Duncan
Photos
Chelsi Fisher
Posted
December 29, 2017

Onions are undoubtedly one of the most dynamic and indispensable cooking ingredients throughout many kitchens the world over. Whether roasted, fried, caramelized, slow cooked in stocks, soups, and braises, or chopped up and thrown raw into salads, guac, and chunky salsas, the uses for onions are as varied and numerous as their layers inside.

The endless versatility of the onion, however, can also be its most intimidating factor for the average home cook. Most of us are not Julia Child in the kitchen; we do not possess an endless rolodex of onion-ology (types, uses, etc.) and the wherewithal to march into the produce section and confidently select the proper onion(s) without any hesitation whatsoever. Chances are, you’re more in the camp of the rest of us who have spent time lurking around the onion bins, wondering if you can sub a white onion for a yellow onion and what quality you’re supposed to be looking for. And heaven forbid a recipe call for shallots, scallions, or — the horror — leeks.

We all live busy lives of work, kids, family, ballet recitals, soccer practice, meetings, home repairs, and more, and gaining insight into the onion world simply isn’t a high priority for most. But armed with just a little knowledge, you can up your kitchen game and feel good knowing you can confidently select, cook, and store onions of all types. 

Here is a simple beginner’s guide to the world of onions that is by no means an exhaustive concordance, but at least it will save you from yet again hovering awkwardly around the onion section while other shoppers give you the side eye and hurry their kids past you. (OK, so it’s not quite that dramatic, but it can still feel that way sometimes.)

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Bulb Onions (White, Yellow, and Red)
Bulb onions, also sometimes referred to as storage onions, are the most common types of onions and the ones with which you are likely most familiar. And even though for many recipes you can sub one for the other in a pinch, there are still subtle nuances of each one that will work better in one dish than another.

Yellow onions are by far the most common cooking onion. If you are unsure of what to use when a recipe simply calls for “one onion,” yellow is your safest bet. Not quite as sharp as white onions when raw, yellow onions achieve a deep, deep sweetness when cooked, which is why they lend themselves especially well to caramelizing. Yellow onions are also ideal for long-cooking — like in simmering soups or Dutch oven braises — because they bring out a deeper and more dynamic flavor than white onions over longer cooking times.

Similar to yellow onions but with a sharper and more pungent taste when raw, white onions are usually the culprit for that one co-worker’s dreaded onion breath. But even though they can cause some temporary halitosis, their satisfyingly crisp crunch and sharp bite taste delightful when minced up small in things like street tacos, raw salsas, and guacamole. With their crisper, cleaner finish than raw yellow onions, the white onion is the traditional choice for many Mexican dishes.

Red onions are prized for their pop of color and added bright, juicy spiciness when raw on top of things like pizzas and salads. In fact, most people find red onions the most pleasant to eat raw because they contain less astringency and are relatively mild in flavor compared with their white and yellow counterparts.
SELECTING: Look for firm, unbruised onions that feel heavy for their size in your palm.
STORING: Store in a cool, dark and dry location, like a drawer or cabinet. White onions will go bad the quickest, then red. Yellow onions, however, can stay good for weeks and weeks.

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Sweet Onions
Sweet onions are similar to yellow onions but are very sweet while also lacking pungency. Sweet onions are great for deep-frying, making them ideal for dishes like a bloomin’ onion, or crispy fried onion rings. They are also the go-to onion for French onion soup. Vidalia onions are perhaps the best-known sweet onion, and their legally registered name comes from being grown in Vidalia, Georgia. Vidalia onions are crisp and super sweet, being very low in pyruvic acid and therefore ideal to eat raw. They are among the mildest in the onion kingdom.
SELECTING: Same as bulb onions.
STORING: Wrap each onion in a paper towel and store in the fridge; they should keep for weeks.

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Scallions, or Green Onions
Usually sold in bunches, scallions have a straight, white-to-light-green base with long, skinny dark green tops. Scallions are mostly chopped up raw and used as a garnish or thrown into the last few minutes of a stir-fry because their flavor will break down quickly the longer they are cooked. They are crunchy and juicy, sweet and mild, with hardly any bite (though the whiter base will taste more astringent). Scallions are widely used in many Asian dishes, including the growingly popular, food-truck-trendy kimchi.
SELECTING: Look for white bases that are bright and firm with no moisture or sliminess, and no wilted tops.
STORING: Never store in a plastic bag; because of their high moisture content, scallions will rot quickly if enclosed. The best way to store is a reusable mesh produce bag in your fridge’s crisper drawer.

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Spring Onions
Spring onions look remarkably similar to scallions except that they have a bulbous base as opposed to straight. Though they look similar, they actually aren’t scallions at all but rather just very young bulb onions. Because they are pulled out of the ground earlier, spring onions have a more delicate and mild flavor with just a touch of spiciness when eaten raw. When cooked, they are tender and sweet.
SELECTING: Same as scallions.
STORING: Wrap in slightly damp paper towel, secure with rubber band, and store in the crisper drawer for up to 1 ½ weeks.

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Shallots
Used ubiquitously in French and Asian cuisine, shallots have just as much in common compositionally with garlic as they do with onions. Small, with papery, pinkish-orange skin, shallots are milder in flavor than red onions but more assertive than yellow, with a distinct hint of garlic. They are great for making vinaigrettes and simmering in sauces, and in Asian dishes are usually crisp-fried or ground into currypaste.
SELECTING: Firm and compact with shiny, unblemished skin.
STORING: Will keep for several weeks to a month if stored in a cool, dark, dry place like a drawer or cabinet.

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Leeks
Ah, leeks. Perhaps the most intimidating in the onion family. Even the way they look — aggressively thick and tall with woody, dark green stems — says move on; for experienced cooks only. But leeks can add a lovely and delicate depth of flavor to certain dishes and should not be passed over simply out of intimidation. Though they look similar to scallions, they are actually an entirely different plant. Leeks generally are not eaten raw, and the pale stem is the most useable part of the leek.

Delicious when sautéed all on their own, or melted down into a braise, are two popular ways to cook with leeks.

Generally, the dark woody tops are thrown away, but they can also add an incredible depth of flavor to homemade stock (just throw them in the freezer until you need them).
SELECTING: Same as scallions.
STORING: Same as scallions.

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Pearl Onions
Adorably small, pearl onions are similar to white onions but are sweeter. They can come in red, yellow, or white varieties, and because they are quite cumbersome to peel due to their minuscule size, they are often sold already peeled in the freezer section. They taste excellent grilled on a skewer in the summertime, or are also delicious roasted with balsamic.
SELECTING: Same as bulb onions (unless you are buying them frozen and pre-peeled in a pack).
STORING: Same as bulb onions.

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Cippolini Onions
There’s no better way to impress your friends than to whip up a dish using an onion that hardly anyone’s ever heard of. These quirky little onions are squat and disc-shaped, almost like a flying saucer. Cippolini onions have historically been reserved for gourmet grocery stores and fancy restaurants, but have more recently become widely available. Prized for their extra-sweetness due to a naturally high sugar content, they make a great side dish roasted all on their own, or they also take very well to caramelizing.
SELECTING: Same as bulb onions.
STORING: Same as bulb onions.

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