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Exploring the World of Onions: A Comprehensive Guide to Their Varied Characteristics & Culinary Uses

Updated: Feb 2

How many kinds of onions are there? Are leeks onions? What about shallots? Is the nutritional content different in these various onions? What about taste? Let's dive in and learn more about some of the most popular onions at your local supermarket!

Many onions with heading


Single yellow onion with skin

These onions are sometimes called brown onions and are a good all-purpose onion that can be used in just about any recipe. If a recipe calls for onion, but doesn't specify which type of onion, this is a safe option. Yellow onions are oftentimes a little on the sweet side, can be pungent when raw, but are more mild when roasted, sautéed, or caramelized. Because they are a good onion to caramelize, they work well for French onion soup and in frittatas. Due to their high starch content, they are less prone to becoming mushy. One cup of chopped yellow onion has 115 calories. Yellow onions are high in antioxidants (11 times higher than white onions). Research indicates that onions may help control high blood pressure.


Single red onion with skin

These onions are typically spicier than yellow onions and are a better choice when raw onions are needed. They go well in salads and on your favorite burger. Tip - soak them in ice water as you prepare your meal and they will become more crisp and help tame the spiciness. Red onions are also an excellent choice for grilling and pickling. One cup of chopped red onions has 64 calories. These onions are high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. They help fight inflammation, help boost the immune system, promote healthy digestion, and even enhance hair growth. Most nutritional-minded healthcare providers recommend red onions as the healthiest type of onion.


Single white onion with skin

Softer and milder than red or yellow onions, they still have a rather sharp taste and can have an aftertaste. White onions are usually better cooked, but also work well raw in recipes like salsa or guacamole. Once sliced, soak your white onion in ice water for an hour to get a sweeter taste. These onions are one of the lowest in calories; one medium sized white onion has only 44 calories. White onions are high in vitamin C, flavonoids, and phytonutrients. They promote gut health, help with sleep quality, and have potent antibacterial properties.

Yellow, red, and white onions are best stored on your countertop, at room temperature, out of direct sunlight. Be sure to allow some ventilation to prevent molding. They generally stay good for up to a month.


Single sweet onion with skin

Depending on where they are grown, these onions are know as Vidalia (in Georgia), Walla Walls (in Washington), Mauis (in Hawaii), and Texas Sweet (in Texas, of course). They are more mild with a hint of sweetness, as well as being more crisp, making these onions a great option for eating raw. Sweet onions are also great for onion rings and for stuffing (like you may a bell pepper, mushroom, or tomato). Because they are more delicate onions, they are best stored in the refrigerator. One medium Vidalia onion has 60 calories. These onions are a good source of vitamin C and high in antioxidants, but are also higher in sugar content.


Several full scallions with some diced up

These onions are also know as spring onions, green onions, table onions, salad onions, and shallots. However, they are, in fact, not shallots. Scallions have a mild flavor and are softer. These onions are perfect for topping salads, chili, egg dishes, and more. They can be cooked, and are best cooked for a short period of time, or slowly cooked (or infused) into sauces. Scallions are 5 calories per 1 medium onion. They are high in fiber, which may lower your cholesterol levels, chances for diabetes and heart disease, and may help fight cancer. They are also high in vitamin K, which helps with blood clotting and support strong bones. Scallions should be kept in the refrigerator.


Single shallot with skin

Shallots are, in point of fact, from the onion family. They have a delicate, sweet flavor, with just a touch of sharpness. They make a great substitute for almost any recipe that calls for onions. One shallot (about 1 tablespoon chopped up) has 7 calories. Shallots are loaded with vitamins A, B, and C, as well as minerals potassium and manganese. They are also an excellent source of fiber. Store shallots in a cold, dark place; they should last for several weeks.


Various shallots, one cut in half

These petite onions are sweet, and you can find them in red, white, or yellow. They are the perfect onion for use in roasting dishes, to pickle, to use in cream sauces, and more. You can use them whole or slice them in half. They are in the grocery store's freezer aisle. One cup of pearl onions diced up is 81 calories. Pearl onions has been proven to lower cholesterol and regulate high blood pressure. They also help aid in digestion and are good for treating fungal infections. These onions should be stored in a dry, cool, well-ventilated place for up to a month.

What about leeks? Are they really onions? Yes, they are the mildest of the onion family. While leeks can be eaten raw, most prefer them cooked in their favorite dishes. Did you know that you can use almost the entire leek? Many prefer to toss the green part, but only the very top and darkest green part should be left out. Leeks are great for soups, like potato leek soup, cabbage soup, and leek soup. They are also a great choice for stews, pastas, and more! Leeks are a good source of vitamin K, helping reduce the chance of osteoporosis and aiding in blood clotting. They're also high in fiber! Leeks should be stored in a plastic bag and kept in a cold, dark place (preferably the refrigerator) for up to 1 week.

Onions are a great add-in for all your favorite dishes. With so many different types of onions available, they can be used in almost any savory dish.

Onions may cause symptoms of gastrointestinal upset, such as heartburn, bloating, abdominal discomfort, nausea, and vomiting. These side effects are more common in those with digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome and irritable inflammatory bowel disease. These symptoms are relatively more common when eating onions raw, rather than cooked.

*Picture credits: Walmart website, Amazon website, Martha Stewart, bon appetit.

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