Onions and their many layers: know your ingredients

By / Food / November 2nd, 2020 / 13
Onions explained

There are few fragrances in the kitchen that trigger a hungry stomach like the smell of onions cooking. Think yellow onions and celery. Red onions and garlic. Green onions in butter. It’s enough to make your eyes tear up at the thought (of cutting them)! Over time, I’ve learned that there are specific types of onions best suited for some dishes or food combinations. I’ve put together this rough guide for using the fragrant vegetable in a myriad of dishes based on what flavour you’re craving. After all, there truly are many layers to the onion family.

The popular ones: yellow onions

Yellow onions are your classic, all-purpose choice. They go with anything in a pinch. Yellow onions are sweet yet balanced out by a solid kick (yes, the one that typically makes you cry). While not my first choice for eating raw, these are the perfect fit for any cooked dish, from homemade spaghetti sauce to braised beef stew, to Cajun shrimp and rice.

The colourful ones: red onions

Red onions are the ones you can get away with eating raw without a burning sensation shooting up your nose. They’re generally sweeter and milder than yellow onions. Red onions add vibrant colour and a hint of spice to sandwiches, poké bowls and dips like guacamole (seriously, it makes all the difference).

The mild ones: shallots

Shallots are a mild onion; they’re sweet and have garlic-like nuances. They’re a breeze to incorporate into most recipes calling for caramelized onions. Shallots are often used in potato- or lentil-based dishes and fried rice. You can get away with using these raw, too, to level-up salad dressings.

The underrated ones: leeks

Leeks have to be one of my favourite onions to cook with, but admittedly, probably my least favourite to clean. The flavour is packed into the palest parts of the stock; up-cycle the dark green bits by saving them to make soup broth. I particularly love to use leeks in holiday stuffing recipes and other baked veggie dishes, like spanakopita.

The gentle ones: sweet onions

Sweet onions are … sweet. It’s in their name! I like to think of these as the stars of bar food: they’re great on burgers or transformed into onion rings or blooming onions. While sweet onions fry beautifully, you’ll definitely have no issue using these as raw toppings, too.

I can keep going; my love for onions runs deep. However, Wikipedia tells me there are up to 900 species related to the onion genus, so this may be a good place to end. I’ll also say that, if ever you’re strapped for time, or are tired of having your hands smell like onions for days on end, invest some time in food prep. Dice up a bunch of different onions, put the result in labelled bags, and pop everything into the freezer. When the time comes, you can measure out exactly what you need for any recipe: they’ll cook or thaw in no time without losing essential flavour.


A self-proclaimed bookworm and logophile, Laura loves writing; writing about food is about as good as it gets. Though she enjoys discovering new restaurants around Montreal, few haunts can surpass the simple pleasures of a great home-cooked meal and a smooth glass of wine.

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