Ever wondered why the food you make doesn’t taste quite like it does when your mother makes it, or when you had it for Thanksgiving dinner at your Aunt’s house? It’s pretty common problem, and all too often the answer is something you’d never expect: You just don’t know your onions, stupid.
Picking the right onion is more important than most people think. Just grabbing the nearest thing to you in the grocery store is a big mistake, and can affect the taste and quality of the food you’re making. Especially if the dish you’re cooking isn’t particularly onion heavy (not many dishes are), the taste impact of using the wrong onion can be subtle and hard to identify. You know what you’ve made doesn’t taste quite right, but you just can’t put your finger on why! Remember: the best use of the onion is to accentuate the other flavors in the dish. Using the wrong kind of onion is similar to using Swiss cheese when you should have used cheddar, or serving a Riesling when you should have served a Pinot Noir.
Red onions are the most commonly used raw onion. Their mild and slightly sweet taste makes them ideal for sandwiches, salads, or any other cold dish that could use a little kick without bringing tears to anyone’s eyes. Their red color also makes them the most aesthetically appealing of the onions, perfect for garnish.
Sweet onions have by far the highest sugar content of any onion variety. This gives them a taste that is both sweet and mild, and is perfectly suited for salads, sandwiches, dips and salsas and onion rings. However, they lose their flavor when cooked, so are best used raw.
Their large shape and light skin color easily identifies them in the supermarket, but they’ll come in multiple different varieties, so don’t be confused! The Vidalia (grown in Georgia), Walla Walla (grown in Washington), Sweet Imperial (grown in California), and Maui (grown in Hawaii) are just a few of the kinds of sweet onions available.
Green Onions (Scallions)
As the mildest variety of onion, the scallion often finds itself being used as a garnish instead of as a cornerstone ingredient. Chop and sprinkle across green salads, creamy salads, soups, pastas, Mexican food, and pretty much anything else you want. While scallions definitely do possess a very mild sharpness, they’re unlikely to substantially change the flavor of a dish unless used in very large quantity.
Scallions are perfect to use if you’re looking to liven up a dish by adding color, or a mild onion tang.
Probably the most commonly used onion, yellow onions tend to be smaller in size with a thinker skin and a bolder, more astringent taste. Still appropriate for use fresh in salsas and other strongly flavored dishes, yellow onions are more often seen heated, baked or sautéed. Generally speaking, the yellow onion is your all-purpose cooking onion.