Ask a Chef: what are the differences between onions?

Red onions (Photo by Darwin_Bell/Flickr)

Question: What are the differences between the various onions commonly found at groceries stores?

From the perspective of a grocery store, you can divide onions into two major categories very quickly: bulbs and sprouted bulbs. Leeks, Ramps, and Scallions are examples of onions sold with the tops on. While some people discard the tops, they can be used just as easily as the bottoms, especially in making stocks.

Shallots look like small onions, but are oval in share and usually are covered in a brown skin. Shallots are sweet and mild with their own distinct flavor. I use them in salad dressings, risottos, and cold puree sauces. Another great use for them is peeling them and roasting them in the oven to go with game or fowl. And finally, sliced very thin they compliment a number of southeast Asian dishes, especially Thai.

Spanish/sweet onions contain more starch and sugar than yellow or white onions. I use them when I want to make jams, french onion soups, or anything where people will be eating a cooked onion. You can eat vidalia onions raw as well, but this probably is not for everyone.

White and yellow onions I use primarily for sauces as they are not as rich and flavorful as vidalia onions. They usually come in mesh bags at five pounds and are not usually pleasurable to eat raw.

Red onions, of course, I serve either raw or slightly cooked. They work great in salads and salsa, but also can be good just quickly sauteed in a warm salad, like with roasted mushrooms and balsamic vinegar.

Cippolini onions are small flat onions, which you usually see in the olive bar, already marinated. I like to braise these and sieve them with cooked meats, especially beef and veal.

Pearl onions are the tiny round ones that come in small bags.  I don’t often have the patience to deal with them, as they require considerable labor to prepare. If you want to use them, blanch them, then peel the outer layer of skin off. I like them best in my Gibson (Boodles or Hendricks).

Matt Kantor is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He has worked in kitchens includingPicholine (New York), Gayle and Tangerine (Philadelphia), and Fenouil (Portland). He now works in Toronto and runsLittle Kitchen, a catering company that will cook fantastic food in your own home. He also cooks for the monthly event, Secret Pickle Supper Club. Follow Matt on Twitter.

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Comments ( 4 )

i’ve been playing around with having caramelized onions as a condiment. should i be using anything in my long slow cooking other than oil/butter and onions like some herbs or something? or would they just get washed out?

Ben added these pithy words on Jul 06 10 at 10:14 am

Don’t bother with the herbs. Add them at the very end right before service if you like. They will get destroyed in the cooking process. I usually use a little salt and some fat, either oil or butter, depending on the recipe and whether or not I’m going to serve them cold. I find that a little bit of salt or sugar at the beginning helps accelerate the cooking process by pull out out more liquid earlier. You can also add a touch of vinegar for balance, but I would wait until the onions are fully rendered before doing this, as your acidity could wind up being too high if you do it in the beginning.

Matt added these pithy words on Jul 06 10 at 10:21 am

I have a huge bag of yellow onions in my pantry that I can never seem to get rid of. Do you have any interesting suggestion as to what to do with them? I feel like I only make tomato sauce with them, and the bag never empties.

Kim added these pithy words on Jul 06 10 at 1:41 pm

Shallots are simply amazing roasted with other veggies (carrots, zucchinis and potatoes for me, with a bit of rosemary or parsley). They get as sweet as roasted garlic bit they retain their onion-like flavors. Great also with eggs in a frittata or an omelette.

Spanish onions are at their best when they are slowly caramelized, until they have a deep golden color. In Julia Child’s French onion soups, you stir them in butter and oil for 45 minutes to get a perfect taste and it is worth it.

As for red onions, they shine in a greek salad. However, I made a great discovery last week at Marché Jean-Talon in Montréal. I was in Le marché des saveurs du Québec and I bought onion confit, made from red onions, produced by Les délices de Marie-Christine. What a discovery. It’s more like a ketchup or relish than your usual onion confit and it was perfect yesterday on a turkey burger with melted provolone cheese and roasted red onions and red peppers.

I am not a big fan of pearl onions; the taste just doesn’t feel right to me most of the time. But there is one exception: boeuf bourguignon. What a delight along with the mushrooms.

Marc-André added these pithy words on Jul 09 10 at 6:05 pm

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