What onion, when and why? Everything onion for your next recipe

There are as many types of onions as an onion has layers. Well, maybe not exactly, but there are a lot of onion varieties in the world. Hundreds even, and they all vary in flavor, texture, and other traits.

Onions are part of the allium genus, which also includes shallots and leeks, as well as herbs like chives. A specific onion’s name often gives clues to its provenance and flavor (Texas Super Sweet, Walla Walla Sweet, Giant Red Hamburger) but as a whole, they generally fall into a few easily identified categories.

Our guide on onions gives you all the info you need to choose the best onion for your recipe (including how to cut it, which is just as important to which you use!) and provides inspiration for trying a new-to-you onion in your next meal.

Yellow Onion

What is it: The best all-around onion. Keep a bag in your kitchen at all times. Can be used for any of the preparations listed for other onions, but holds up beautifully and has a slight sweetness when cooked. Yellow onions are sometimes incorrectly labeled as Spanish onions when in fact, Spanish onions tend to ride the middle-ground between yellow and sweet onions.

When to use it: For most cooking, especially soups, stews and braises.

White Onion

What is it: Sharp, pungent onion flavor that has a slightly peppery finish.

When to use it: For fresh preparations, like salsas, garnishing and stir fry.

Sweet Onion

What is it: More natural sugars and less sharp spicy flavor, sweet onions are good for those who are onion-averse. Vidalia, Maui and Bermuda are sweet onions grown only in certain designated regions. Sweet onions look like yellow onions but are slightly flat/less round.

When to use it: A great option for caramelized onions, onion rings and sheet-pan roasted dinners.

Red Onion

What is it: A purple-hued onion with mild sweetness and gentle heat.

When to use it: Best for eating raw, pickling, sandwiches or salads.

Pearl Onion

What is it: A very small onion that’s similar in flavor to white onions. The smallest pearl onions are known as cocktail (or silverskin) onions.

When to use it: Can be pickled and used as a cocktail garnish, cooked whole in soups and stews, or cooked in a cream sauce for a classic Thanksgiving side dish.


What is it: Larger than pearl onions but smaller than yellow onions, has a mild flavor.

When to use it: Usually cooked whole. Great for roasting.

Spring Onion

What is it: A very young, tender, white onion with a gentle, bright flavor. Looks like a scallion/green onion with a bulbous end.

When to use it: Can be cooked, but delicious when trimmed, cut in half lengthwise and grilled.


What is it: A small member of the onion family that looks like a baby red onion. More oval and pointed at the ends that other onions, it has a mild, delicate onion flavor.

When to use it: Delicious minced and added to dressings or sauces, or braised in fat and tossed with pasta.


What is it: Thin, long white onions with edible green tops and grassy flavor that are a staple in Asian cooking. Also known as green onions.

When to use it: Best for finishing dishes (like tacos, braises and stir fry) and as a garnish.


What is it: A member of the allium family. Tender, white flesh with a tough green stalk; grows mostly above ground.

When to use it: Great for soups and braises, or sauteed in butter and worked into savory pies or gravies.


What is it: A bright green, grassy herb that has mild notes of onion flavor.

When to use it: Mostly as a garnish or worked into cooked potatoes and other mashes.

Now, how to cut onions

How you cut an onion is just as important as which onion you choose, especially when cooking with them. Slicing into a uniform size helps onions cook evenly, and the shape they are cut into will dictate if they hold their form or stew down into a pungent, sweet mush.

Regardless of the recipe and use of your onion, all onion prep (including pearl, cipollini and shallots) starts with removing the root and stem ends. Next, make a shallow incision from the stem end to the root end of the onion, allowing you to easily peel any papery skin or first layer off the onion. Unless you are making rings for sandwiches or onion rings, cut your onion in half from stem to root, then move on to other cuts.


A dice can be a tiny brunoise or a chunky large dice, depending on the texture desired and the recipe in question. Whatever size you are after, the start is the same: Once you have your onion halves, make a series of horizontal cuts into the onion (stem end towards root end, leaving a 1/4-inch of onion attached at the root end) that are parallel to your cutting board. Next, cut down into the onion from one side to the other with cuts that are perpendicular to your first series of cuts. Finally, cut across the onion, starting at the stem end and working towards the root end. The size of your dice depends on how close your cuts are to each other. Onions that are diced tend to cook down faster than sliced onions.


A chop is a quick way to add onions to a roast, to making stock or to kebabs. The easiest chop for an onion is to cut each half into thirds or quarters, with each segment of onion including part of the stem end and root end.


Once you have onion halves, you can keep your knife perpendicular to the cutting board and slice into half-moons, starting from the stem end and working back toward the root. Alternatively, you can angle your knife at 45 degrees and start at one side of the onion, cutting at an angle towards the center, following the curve of the onion, resulting in slices up one side of the onion half and down the other. This technique works well for caramelized onions, as it creates silky strands that are great for burgers, soups and dips