Know your onions: A close look at 13 varieties


yellow onion, red onion and garlic

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Have you ever prepared a meal and realized you don't have the right onion for it? Maybe you were making pasta sauce and only had red onions. The results may have still been tasty, but perhaps not quite what you were expecting. It's all right. Not everyone can be a walking food encyclopedia, and you certainly don't have to be. If you've ever wondered what the deal is with the onion family, then check out our ultimate guide to onions. We look at 13 varieties and the types of dishes in which they taste best.


1. Chives


The Herb Information Site refers to chives as the meekest of all the onions. And certainly the perennial herb tastes mildly of onions. Chop some up and mix with butter or sour cream for a baked potato or with cream cheese for a tasty bagel spread.


2. Garlic


It's certainly in a league of its own — with a few varieties that we'll be looking closer at in the near future, but garlic is also part of the onion family. Once you crush a clove, garlic releases a strong and pungent aroma. If you're not chopping up a few cloves for pretty much any pasta sauce, soup, stew or pretty much any culinary creation from around the world, then you're doing it wrong. Sometimes, newly harvested garlic is sold with the scapes — the edible ends of the curled green stems still attached to the bulb.


3. Ramps


Sometimes called wild leeks, ramps are in season for about 1.2 nanoseconds in spring. Foodies lose their minds foraging for them or hunting them down at their local farmers' markets or even chain supermarkets like Whole Foods. You can eat them raw or cook them up and they are edible in their entirety — bulb, stem and leaves. Well, if you find any.


4. Scallion


Speaking of spring onions, these guys, like their rarer cousins, are entirely edible, so go ahead and enjoy their flavorful bite. Scallions are as delicious cooked up in stir fry dishes and omelets as they are raw in a quick and easy pico de gallo.


5. Leeks


They look like scallions on steroids and have a mellow onion flavor. Use them in lieu of onions in savory pies or gratins, or make some potato leek soup. You won't be sorry.


6. Shallots


Shallots look more like garlic than they do onions, but that makes sense since all three belong to the same family of alliums. You can use shallots and onions interchangeably; however, since they taste milder than their onion cousins, shallots are especially exquisite in sauces, particularly red wine sauces.


7. White onions


With its sharp flavor, the white onion is, perhaps, tastiest when used in Latin American and Caribbean cuisine. They should also be your go-to onion if you're making chutney, stir-fry anything or salsa.


8. Pearl Onions


They're small, they're sweet and they're absolutely delightful. Pearl onions are as delicious roasted as they are pickled and served as garnish in a classic martini.


9. Yellow Onions


Say you weren't reading this article to see which onion to use for a particular recipe — or say you didn't already know — the yellow onion is the default onion. Many consider it an all-purpose onion because it cooks up beautifully in all sorts of dishes, including stews, soups, roasts and sauces. Though it's certainly sharp and astringent like its white counterpart, the longer you cook a yellow onion, the sweeter it gets. Don't confuse it for the Spanish onion, however, which is a variety of yellow onion. Yellow onions are the size of a fist and have a tough outer skin.


10. Spanish onions


Milder than yellow onions, Spanish onions are also slightly sweeter. They are also a little larger than yellow onions, about the size of a softball. Spanish onions have a thin, papery skin, and make pretty decent onion rings.


11. Sweet onions


But if onion rings are what you're jonesing for, then try to find some sweet onions. These babies were born to be onion rings. If you shy away from raw onions in salads, sandwiches or burgers, give the sweet onion a try instead. Just be sure to slice them up nice and thin. Common types of sweet onions include Vidalia, Walla Walla and Bermuda.


12. Red Onions


Also called the purple onion, this is the one you find in salads, sandwiches and burgers and, hot diggity dog, it's as sharp as a dagger. In fact, the red onion has the sharpest flavor in the entire onion family. Chop it up and add it to guacamole for a nice kick. If the sharpness is a bit too much for you (or makes you stink of onions for the rest of the day), consider either pickling or letting them sit in ice water for 15 to 20 minutes before serving.


13. Cipolline


Last, but certainly not least, is this squat, flat-topped beauty. Also called the Italian pearl onion, the cipolline is a lot milder than its cousins. Roast them, glaze them or use them to make the best cream of onion soup you've ever had.