peeling back the layers of your everyday onions

They're ubiquitous in the grocery store, there's almost always one in our vegetable drawer, and they go undetected in an endless list of recipes. We're talking...

By: Anna Decker / 06/06/2016

Some may immediately associate onions with a strong, harsh flavor or watery eyes or a stinky kitchen, but we've learned that these temporary nuisances and misconceptions are well worth the depth, flavor, and character that onions bring to many dishes.

We've put together a guide to The Big Four—highlighting special characteristics of each type, how they're cooked (or not cooked!) best, and our favorite recipes that showcase these often misunderstood kitchen chameleons. Cook, relax, and enjoy!

The Yellow Onion

The yellow onion is the all-purpose onion. A little milder than the white onion, it should always be your go-to for sautéing—whether with peppers or garlic or celery, or just on its own—our yellow friend develops a slight sweetness the longer it's cooked down. And it has thicker layers than the white onion, so it's able to withstand cooking longer without wilting down to nothing! Yellow onions are versatile and available everywhere—nearly 90% of onions grown in America are these yellow beauties! Store in a dark and dry place, and pull them out when you're ready to cook...well, just about anything.

yellow onion

meatloaf burgers and rice with cucumber salad These mini meatloaf burgers are bursting with savory goodness thanks to Worcestershire sauce and smoked paprika. Grated yellow onion mixed in with the ground beef makes for moist and juicy patties. Our favorite part? When the rice soaks up the meat, still sizzling from the pan. Dijon mustard mixed in with ketchup makes for a sweet sauce with a little bite.

The Red Onion

The red onion is used raw more often than other onions not only because of its mild flavor, but also its beautiful color. It's great in salads and salsas, or just thinly sliced on its own for tacos! Although red onions are easy to find just about anywhere, they only make up about eight percent of the onion market in the US. So don't take them for granted—and preserve them when you can! Red onions are also great for pickling, which is an easier undertaking than it sounds: just combine vinegar, some sugar and some spices (like peppercorns and cloves) in a jar, let the onions sit for a few hours (or days), and drape those on any sandwich for an instant upgrade. In one of our favorite recipes, we use thick red onion slices for a baked twist on classic fried onion rings.

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hanger steak and celery salad with onion rings & blue cheese A good piece of meat needs little more than salt and pepper to make it sing, but onion rings and a cool celery and blue cheese salad certainly don't hurt. We got the onions super crunchy in the oven, no deep-frying necessary. Get those started, mix up the salad, then sear the steak.

hanger steak and celery salad

The Shallot

Think of a shallot as the red onion's delicate, adorable little sister. Often used in French cooking, a shallot provides a slight garlicky flavor beyond your typical onion, as similar as they may appear. Shallots can be substituted for onions, just be sure to use three shallots for every one onion—not just because of their size, but because shallots are milder. And because of their unique flavor, shallots are best used raw or lightly fried, mixed into a vinaigrette, sliced thinly into a salad, or atop eggs or noodles, like in our soba and charred eggplant recipe below.

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soba and charred eggplant with crispy shallots Delicate shallot rings are fried crisp in this recipe - a great contrast to soft soba noodles, which are great eaten cool. We drizzled a ginger-tamari dressing onto the noodles and tossed them with eggplant and sweet tomatoes. The broiler gives you direct heat, meaning the rest of your vegetables will get a gorgeous char in just a few minutes.


The Scallion

Otherwise known as the Green Onion, or that thing that grows out of a really old potato, the scallion is a very global piece of produce. Sprinkled atop Indian curries, incorporated into light Italian pasta dishes, mixed into those classic Chinese pancakes and more, scallions are perfect if you need a subtle onion flavor without the strong bite other onions provide. The scallion's color isn't the only thing that changes along the length of the onion—the white base is crunchy and has a slightly more pungent flavor, whereas the green tips are leafier and are best used as an accent. Chop up scallions or leave them whole, as we do in this grain risotto—cooking them in the oven on high heat makes them char and blister beautifully, for a surprisingly perfect accompaniment to a creamy dish.

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mixed grain risotto with spinach and charred scallions This humble risotto needs barely any work: minimal stirring, few ingredients, and no butter. And yet it might be the creamiest risotto we’ve ever tasted. Red quinoa, pearl barley and steel-cut oats simmer over low heat while scallions blister in the oven. At the very end, we whisked in Parmesan and spinach for added creaminess and pockets of green. The final touch: those charred scallions draped over your steaming bowl of risotto.


(Featured image and illustrations: Laura Manzano)

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