What is the difference between a white or brown onion? | What onions to use and when to use them

If you are a little confused about what onion to use, you’re not alone. As a culinary teacher, I get this question a lot. 
Does it matter which onion I use? 
There are no strict rules on onions, but if you want to know the nuisances of onions and when they are used for what, I’ll break it down for you here. 
Below, I’ll give you the super quick summary so that you can select the right onion for your dish. 

I’ll go over 5 main types of onions, but there are many more. 

1. Red Onion

The red onion is pretty and has one of the mildest flavors of all the onions. For this reason, they are often used in raw preparations like salsa, salads, sandwiches and burgers. 
They lose some of their flavor when cooked, so I would recommend using the other onions when cooking. 
Red onions are also great for pickling. Not only do they create a beautiful purple pickling juice, but they are mild and can be enjoyed as a condiment for many dishes. 

2. White Onion

This is a pungent or sharper onion. It has a thin, papery skin. White onions are most commonly used in Mexican cooking. Use them for salsas, chutneys, and raw preparations like pickling. 

3. Yellow or Brown Onion

This is the all-purpose onion. They are great for slow cooking and braising because they have a high sugar content and caramelize well. 
If you’re making French Onion soup or something similar, definitely use this onion for max caramelization and sweetness. 

Takeaway: The difference between the white and brown onion- the white tends to be a little sharper/pungent and crispier. The brown or yellow onion tends to brown and caramelize more because of its higher sugar content. 

4. Sweet Onion

There are a few different types of sweet onions, so you’ll see them by the names Maui, Walla Walla,  Vidalia and others. They don’t have quite the pungent, sharp flavor as the other onions, so they are great to use raw in salads or sandwiches. 
This is the onion most used for crispy onion rings. 

5. Shallot

These look similar to a small red onion and you can find them next to the onions and garlic. But, what are they?
A shallot could be a secret weapon to a home cook. Many people don’t know about shallots but they are the secret behind some amazing French dishes. Shallots can be described as a cross between an onion and garlic.
They are not as sharp as garlic, nor as pungent as an onion, so they have their very own flavor profile. They are considered delicate in flavor in comparison to the average onion. 
When I was in culinary school, we often used shallots in preparing duxelles, or chopped mushrooms for fillings. 
Shallots are used a lot in French and Asian cooking. 

Other types: green onions or scallions and chives

  • Green onions or scallions are the long green stalks with small white bulbs. They are actually baby onions picked before the onion has matured into a full grown onion. For this reason, they are super mild. They are often sprinkled on dishes at the end for color and mild onion flavor. You’ll find them a lot in Asian and Latin cuisine. 
  • Chives are part of the onion family but considered an herb. Chives are those long green stems that people often plant in their herb box. I absolutely love them but its hard to get them fresh and they don’t keep long. When I get them, they are a treat!
  • They have an even more delicate flavor than green onions. They are mostly used for fancy French cuisine. Think omelettes and deviled eggs. 
  • They are used at the end of cooking because if you add them while cooking, they will lose all their delicate flavor. They make a great decoration for your plate, sprinkling them on top. 


If you have the choice of only one onion for whatever reason, stick with the brown or yellow onion. It is the most versatile for all your different dishes. 
But, don’t be afraid to experiment and explore! Challenge your taste buds to see if you can identify the differences. Make the kitchen your playground. 
I hope this gave you a simple introduction to different types of onions, and when to use them. The best way to learn is always to just JUMP IN and don’t fret about making mistakes, but enjoy the learning process. 
Have fun eating onions!

To your happy and healthy life, 


Did you try a new onion?

Tag me on Instagram! I’d love to see it! @chefjoannas 

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