There is a time and a place for every onion.

Onions are a foundational ingredient, used in cuisines across the world to add flavor, texture and color to all kinds of dishes. But when it gets right down to it, onion types can be overwhelming. It’s not clear when to use which type, why cooks and recipe writers swap them out, and how to know what purpose they’re serving. Here, we’ll break down the five most common types of onions and help you understand when and how to swap them out.

Yellow onions

Make this your go-to onion. Yellow onions have a pretty well-balanced flavor, and they hold up well to cooking over long periods, which means they’re great for caramelizing. There’s enough sweetness that they’re not overwhelming to eat raw, but they also have enough pungent flavor to serve you well when cooked.

Sweet onions

The most common of these are sweet vidalia onions, which are easy to confuse with yellow onions. They have the yellow papery outside of yellow onions, but the flesh inside is yellow. Sweet onions have more concentrated sugars, so they’re great for eating raw. Try them chopped for a garnish, or thinly sliced on top of a salad.

082520_Onion varieties
Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Recipe to Try: Sweet Onion Casserole

White onions

These have a more aggressive flavor, which makes them good for cutting through rich dishes. This is the onion of choice for many taquerias, which offer finely chopped white onions as a garnish for your tacos. Lots of people like them for a light garnish because though they’re strong, they do have less of an aftertaste.

Red Onions

You’re probably most familiar with red onions as a garnish, which is popular because they have such an appealing deep and vibrant reddish-purple color. But red onions can actually be very overpowering. To bring out their sweetness, try gently roasting or grilling a red onion, or give thinly sliced onions a quick rinse under cold water to make their flavor a little more gentle.

Recipe to Try: Grilled Red Onions


Shallots are those little bulbs that look remarkably like tiny yellow onions and are often found near the fresh heads of garlic in the supermarket. They’re in the same family as all these other varieties. They have a similar flavor to the yellow onion, but they’re more delicate and sweeter, with a deeper flavor that is reminiscent of garlic. They make a great raw garnish, since they don’t have the intensity of larger onions, but they also bring a delicate sweetness to cooked dishes, like roasted chicken or a long-simmered tomato sauce.