The Dining Mosaic Guide to Onions

Dining Mosaic Guide to Onions

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Onions: An Irreplaceable Ingredient

Onion, Dining Mosaic, Onions

Onions are irreplaceable. They are simply divine when it comes to cooking. You probably already know that they come from the same food family as garlic, but do you always know which type of onion you should be using?

The right onion can completely transform a dish. It can make something previously bland to be fragrant and robust and earthy. And don’t get me started on what raw onions can do to a dish – they provide an incredible spice and flavour that would not otherwise be had!

Onions last relatively long when stored, and that’s probably the reason why they have become a staple in culinary technique around the world. But they still retain elements of being a seasonal ingredient. For example, summer and spring onions are fresh and bright. Fall and winter onions grow a bit more in the soil, resulting in a bigger onion with more layers and a tougher membrane. They can be the most tastiest onion when cooked.

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So the next time you pick up an onion, just think of the massive amount of uses it has. You will always have something new to do with an onion, and it’s important to know which one to use when you have to cook a certain dish. Yes, it’s fantastic to experiment with different onions, but it’s also important to understand the baseline of onion science.

There are probably twelve onion types that one can readily acquire from their grocery store, and you are probably already familiar with some of the better-known ones like shallot, yellow, and white. There are also scallions and shallots. So let’s explore some of the uses of each and see how they interact with other ingredients.

Onion Types

Cippolini Onions

Cippolini onions are generally flatter in shape and smaller in size than the rest of the onion family. Yellow-ish to brown in colour, the skin has a papery texture. These are very sweet and have quite a bit of sugar, yet not so much as the venerable shallot. Great for roasting and caramelisation, they are usually ready for harvest in the autumn months.

leeks, dining mosaicLeeks

Leeks are probably the most moderate of the onion crowd. To some, it is a surprise that they are even an onion at all. But they are! When served uncooked as an accompaniment or otherwise, leeks are crisp and tasty. You can eat the white portion of the leek and the lighter but still green portions. You may not want to eat the part of leek that is dark green in colour as it is texturally rough – but you can sauté or add to stock if you so desire. Speaking of adding it to stocks, leeks are perfect for adding flavour to stock. One of my favourite recipes using leeks is the venerable potato and leek soup (look for the recipe on soon!), which is popular in Ireland and at restaurants serving Irish cuisine.

Pearl Onions

Pearl Onions, or baby onions as we call them in the United Kingdom, are closely related to the leek. They only have one protecting layer, just like garlic. Perfect for pickling or using in cocktails.

red onionsRed Onions

Reds are one of the most famous onion types. They are sweet in taste and perfect on salads or in grilling. I love to use them on the grill because they retain moisture and texture more than other types of onion. They also go great in a roasting pan with other vegetables like carrots and potato. Talk about colour!


Next, we move on to Scallions (also known as spring onion or green onion), which are related to shallots, leeks, and garlic. They are heavily used in Asian cuisine, soups, and curries. It can be served raw as a starter (as done in Indian restaurants) mixed with mint leaves, chutney, and coriander.


Shallots are related to chives, leeks, and garlic. They are phenomenal when used in recipes that simply call for an “onion”. Caution should be used when buying shallots – you don’t want to buy them with any sprouts (they result in a bitter, unpleasant taste). Some chefs exclusively use shallots in their recipes as opposed to white or yellow. They are incredible when used with sautéed vegetables, especially spinach.


Vidalia onion is a variety that is exclusively grown in Georgia, United States. They are sweet and quite versatile in cooking. Vidalias are useful because they do not have much pyvuric acid. That is what makes your eyes tear up when you are in the process of cutting an onion.

white onionsWhite Onions

This type of onion is one of the more mild varieties. It can be eaten raw and they are perfect as a pizza topping or on your salad. Raw white onions are crunchy and have a firm feel, and using them on burgers is highly recommended. You can also use them in Mexican or Spanish cuisine like paella or tacos.

Yellow Onions

These are some of the most common onion available. They are also one of the most versatile and they retain quite a bit of flavour after cooking. They are available throughout the year and are absolutely perfect for using in soups, stews, curries, and other recipes.

Helpful Links

British Onion

European Onion Association

National Onion Association

Further Reading on Onions

Onion Recipes
Onions and Other Vegetable Alliums – James L. Brewster (2008)
Onions, Onions, Onions: Delicious Recipes for the World’s Favourite Secret Ingredient – By Linda Griffith and Fred Griffith

Do you need a recipe for this evening? Try Sausage and Peppers — it includes onions! 


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