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When shopping for onions, you have plenty of choices available at the supermarket. Each onion has its own purpose in the kitchen, and knowing the difference is important if you find yourself with a recipe that calls for one type when you only have the other type in the pantry.
Our chef instructors at the ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen Calgary Learning Centre came up with the following pointers.
Yellow Onions: The general cooking onion. Usually relatively cheap and plentiful, they’re the go-to onion when cooks get cooking. The flavour is strong but mild, with an onion flavour that isn’t overpowering. They often have a bit of sweetness to them, they caramelize nicely and they hold up well when cooked. Unless your recipe says otherwise, this is the default onion for most cooked dishes.
White Onions: A stronger, spicier, more pungent flavour than yellow onions. More oniony, for lack of a better term, than yellow onions. They don’t hold up as well when cooked, as they tend to fall apart.
Red Onions: The salad onion. While you can cook with it, it’s less overpowering than white or yellow onions, making it ideal for uses that require raw onion. The colour fades as you cook them. Great for Greek salad, on burgers, etc. “A mild, colourful, wonderful onion,” as one of our chefs put it. Sweeter and less punchy than white onions.
Sweet Onions: Something else entirely. There are multiple varieties under the “sweet onion” banner, and the level of sweetness can vary widely from one type and growing region to another. As the name implies, they’re super sweet and great for eating raw.
Shallots: A chef favourite. Very mild, almost like a cross between a yellow and a red onion. They hold up very well in cooking, and the texture doesn’t break down easily. While they have an onion flavour, they’re not very potent. Because their flesh is so small, they’re a perfect choice for fine-dining applications where a chef wants a very finely diced onion that acts as a base building block for a wide range of dishes. If you’ve never worked with them, give it a go. Ringed, sliced, pickled – any way you slice them (or dice them), they’re fantastic.