White Versus Yellow Onions: What's the Difference?

A guide to 7 different types of onions.

November 10, 2022

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Photo by: ranplett/Getty Images

ranplett/Getty Images

By Dana Beninati for Food Network Kitchen

Dana is a host, chef and sommelier.

Undisputedly the most used vegetable, the humble onion is easy to cook, deeply flavorful, and delicious both raw and cooked. For scores of recipes, the type of onion is irrelevant, as proven by our favorite French Onion Soup. But sometimes, the onion makes all the difference. Here's our rule of thumb: use white onions raw, yellow onions for cooking and red onions for pickling or grilling. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before we get into the many layers of the onion family, we must first peel back their papery skin, which is what distinguishes most categories. Keep reading to learn the differences and how to best utilize each type of onion.

fresh onions

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fresh onions

Photo by: Catherine McQueen/Getty Images

Catherine McQueen/Getty Images

What Are White Onions? And How to Use Them

White onions are our favorite for raw preparations because their flavor is pleasantly savory, yet less stringent than yellow onions. They can be identified by their papery, white skin that peels off easily.

Uses: If you are making a salad, mixing a salsa or topping a burger, white onions are the best choice thanks to their short finish. In other words, their flavor doesn’t last as long on your palate as other onions. If you wish to tame their flavor, you can slice them and soak in cold water for an hour before using.

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Photo by: hiroyuki nakai/Getty Images

hiroyuki nakai/Getty Images

What Are Yellow Onions? And How to Use Them

Yellow onions are the most widely sold category of onion in the United States. Their spicy layers are covered in a brownish, yellow skin that is thicker than the skin of white onions.

Uses: They are our go to for cooked dishes because their flavor and texture stand up well to heat. In fact, their sweetness intensifies with long cook times, making them the ideal choice for classics like French Onion Dip or Caramelized Onions. We avoid yellow onions for raw dishes because their natural flavor can be pungent and overwhelming.

What Is a Spanish Onion?

Easily the old faithful of the onion family, a Spanish onion can be yellow or white.

Uses: They are large and have a firm texture, which holds up well to cooking. When a recipe calls for Spanish onions, either white or yellow onion will do.

Sliced Red onion on white.

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Sliced Red onion on white.

Photo by: kaanates/Getty Images

kaanates/Getty Images

What Are Red Onions? And How to Use Them

The most pungent of all, red onions are known for their sharp flavor and intense color.

Uses: Their characteristic hue will dull once cooked and may discolor other ingredients, which is why we love them for pickling. But red onions truly deserve the spotlight when grilled, where they become beautifully charred on the outside and creamy on the inside. White and yellow onions pale in comparison on the grill, where they usually burn on the outside and become mushy on the inside.

A scene from a farmstand on Cape Cod MA highlighting a full bucket of fresh Visalia onions for sale.

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A scene from a farmstand on Cape Cod MA highlighting a full bucket of fresh Visalia onions for sale.

Photo by: Judd Brotman/Getty Images

Judd Brotman/Getty Images

What Are Sweet Onions? And How to Use Them

Sweet onions, also known by the regions they grow in, Vidalia, Georgia and Walla Walla, Washington, are the state vegetables of their respective states. And with good reason - their reputation proceeds them as a source of great onion flavor, without any of the punchy stringency. They have a flattened shape and a much shorter growing period, of just April to August, so enjoy them while they are available.

Uses: While they resemble storage onions in texture, they are dramatically sweeter in flavor making them a great addition to neutral ingredients like eggs. Try them in the southern favorite Vidalia Onion Pie, and avoid them when caramelizing, where they become overly sweet.

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Photo by: Minh Hoang Cong / 500px/Getty Images

Minh Hoang Cong / 500px/Getty Images

What Are Spring Onions? And How to Use Them

Spring onions, frequently mistaken for green onions, are young onions that have been picked before the bulb can fully form or swell. Highly seasonal, as their name suggests, these onions are easily found between March and August.

Uses: When you get your hands on some, prepare them simply by rubbing with olive oil, salt, and pepper and roasting at 400 degrees until caramelized.

Spring onions against a white background.

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Spring onions against a white background.

Photo by: Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Science Photo Library/Getty Images

What are Green Onions? And How to Use Them

Green onions, also known as scallions, are herbaceous in flavor. Compared to their larger cousins above, they are milder in flavor and much softer in texture. So much so that they can be easily sliced with a pair of kitchen scissors.

Uses: Served raw as a garnish, chopped green onions are an easy way to brighten any savory dish. We also love to chop them in large pieces for quick-cooking stir frys or leave them whole and grill them for a summer BBQ treat.

How to Store Onions

All storage onions (white, yellow, and red) are laid out to dry before being sold. This is what allows them to last a long time at home, if properly stored. Store them in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place like a pantry, basement or even a garage. Avoid storing your onions with potatoes as together as they will spoil faster. Did you know pantyhose can be used to store onions? Place an onion into the pantyhose and tie a knot before adding another. Repeat before hanging your onion “rope." Stored in this fashion, onions will last for well over a month.

Store sweet onions in the crisper drawer of your refrigeration, individually wrapped in paper towels. When stored this way they last for several months.

Green onions must be stored in the refrigerator, ideally in a perforated bag. They should be used within 4 days.

Spring onions are softer than white, yellow, and red. Store them in the refrigerator, where they will last for 1 to 2 weeks.

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