Onions 101

Easy-to-grow onions bring sweetness, sharpness, tanginess, spiciness and texture to nearly every style of cooking on earth. But when a recipe simply calls for "onion," do you know which is your best choice? Here we take a look at the three main categories of onions for cooking – yellow, white and red – and examine other key types of onions, including pearl, Cipollini, shallots and green onions.

Yellow Onions

Yellow Onions

Named for their pale-yellow flesh and golden, papery skin, these onions taste assertive when raw but become very sweet when cooked. Pungent in flavor and aroma without being overpowering, yellow onions are endlessly versatile. If a recipe calls for "onion" without specifying what type, it's assumed to be a yellow onion.

  • SPANISH ONIONS – These are the most common type of onion in the United States, often found right next to plain old yellow onions. They're a milder choice that works well for raw applications.
  • SWEET ONIONS – Larger and slightly flatter than generic yellow onions, sweet onions contain extra natural sugar, making them excellent for caramelizing. Their size and sweetness also make them ideal for onion rings. Notable sweet onion varieties include Walla Walla, Maui and Vidalia.

Good Question:
What is a hamburger onion?

While shopping you may occasionally run across onions labeled "hamburger onions." These common yellow onions are sorted and labeled as such for their size and particularly globe-like shape, which makes them perfect for topping a round hamburger patty with a single slice.

Red Onion Slices

White Onions

White onions have an ivory flesh covered by a papery white skin. They are decidedly tangy and generally milder and sweeter than yellow onions, making them good for serving raw. They are an ideal choice for Mexican foods and are often found in recipes for salsa or guacamole.

Red Onions

Both the skin and the flesh of red onions are a deep magenta color. They're used for their color to enhance the appearance of a dish just as much as for their flavor. They're crunchy, sharp, assertive and spicy when raw and somewhat sweeter when cooked. They are a popular choice on salads, sandwiches and burgers.

Pearl Onions

Tiny and sweet, pearl onions may be red, white or yellow. They are good for roasts, stews and cocktails where a whole small onion is preferred.

Cipollini Onions

Pronounced chip-oh-lee-nee, these disc-shaped yellow onions are larger and flatter than pearl onions and a bit sweeter.


Shallots are small, brown-skinned onions with a pale purple flesh whose bulbs resemble individual cloves of garlic. Pungent and garlicky with a mild sweetness, they're often used in salad dressings and sauces.

Green Onions

Green Onions

Green onions, sometimes called scallions, are immature onions that have not yet formed a bulb. Bright white at the bottom with hollow, dark green tops, green onions are sold in bunches. They have a mild onion flavor and a distinct juicy sweetness. They may be used cooked or raw, but the tops are especially favored as a colorful, crunchy raw garnish for soups, egg dishes, salads, casseroles, stir fries and so much more.

  • SPRING ONIONS – While they are similar to scallions in appearance and flavor, spring onions are simply young storage onions that have been harvested very early, making them quite mild. They're available in red, yellow and white. Unlike green onions, which are straighter, these have a small bulb at the bottom. As the name suggests, they're only available in the spring.
  • RAMPS – These wild spring onions are known for their lily-of-the-valley-shaped tops. They have a mild, garlicky flavor and may be used in recipes that call for green onions or spring onions. These, too, are only available in the spring.

Good Question: What about chives?

Chives have an oniony flavor profile, but they aren't onions. They aren't the same as green onions or scallions, though they might be used similarly. Chives are most commonly used raw, like herbs, and often as a garnish.

Selection and availability of products and ingredients vary by market.

Selection and availability of products and ingredients vary by market.