Almost any onion will make you cry once you slice it open. So does it really matter which one you grab at the grocery store?
You probably think I’m going to tell you, “Yes, absolutely, and if you choose the wrong one, your recipe will be ruined!”
That’s only sort of true.
They’re more interchangeable than you might think, at least in a good number of situations.
Let’s focus on the supermarket staples of yellow, white and red. Sweet onions—Vidalia, Walla Walla, etc.—are great, but they’re much more perishable and less widely available during a short season. And pearl onions, shallots, scallions and leeks are distinctive enough from their globular cousins to not create substitution confusion.
The big three have a lot in common. They:
- Sport the characteristic papery skin that litters the bottom of every single one of your reusable shopping bags.
- Contain sulfur-based compounds that, when exposed to air, will at least make your eyes water if not downright weep.
- Store well, for at least a few weeks, and up to a month or two, when kept in a cool, dark place with good air circulation. Not the refrigerator. (I’m guilty.)
- Follow the same flavor progression of pungent when raw to progressively sweeter as they cook.
For the vast majority of us, the biggest difference may be their color. If you closed your eyes and tasted samples of each, would you be able to tell them apart? I don’t think I could.
Still, if you’re going to choose one type of onion to always have on hand, you’re best going with the yellow onion. According to the National Onion Association (yes, this is a thing! and their Twitter handle is @Onionista), the yellow onion accounts for about 87 percent of the country’s crop, with red a distant second at 8 percent and white a measly 5 percent.
It’s acceptable raw, ranging from mild to pungent depending on age, and gets mellower as it cooks. Yellow is the ideal variety for caramelizing. When you are sauteing onions to build flavor as a base for your dish (soup, tomato sauce, you name it), the yellow onion is your friend.
That being said, white onions are a totally acceptable substitute for yellow, especially if you’re cooking them.
Based on conventional wisdom, white onions are milder and crisper than yellow, which is why you might want to use them thinly sliced in a salad, chopped in pico de gallo or in other raw preparations. The biggest drawback of white onions is not their flavor, but rather that they don’t last as long in storage.
Red onions are particularly good raw in many of the same places as their white cousins. Red onions work well in salads and guacamole, or on a juicy burger, in part because of their vivid color.
One of my favorite ways to use red onions is pickling them—including red wine vinegar in the brining liquid only enhances the visual pop. I would not, however, recommend adding them to your frittata, as I once did. The onion’s natural chemicals didn’t get along too well with my eggs, which emerged from the oven an unappetizing blue-green-gray color.
So many good meals start with an onion. Even more would be improved by adding one. And now the next time you shed tears, it won’t be because you didn’t know which color to choose.