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Red Onions vs. Yellow Onions


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#1 David Ross

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Posted 06 January 2011 - 07:30 PM

I was watching some old Mario Batali cooking shows and he regularly used red onions in dishes that I thought were exclusive to yellow onion territory. I've always kept a distinction between red onions and yellow onions, never considering substituting one for the other. Reds are good pickled and raw in salads, but that's about all I've ever done with them. Yellows are the old standby, the standard for any mirepoix, sliced, chopped or minced as a garnish on a hamburger bun, fried rings and baked in cream sauce. I've always seen yellow onions as the most versatile onion.

Now I realize there are a number of different types of yellow onions, some spicy and some sweet like our local Walla Walla Sweets. But I've never taken much time to explore the different types of red onions, (if there are different types).

Do you substitute, interchange red onions when a dish calls for yellow? Do you use the red onion because it's more spicy, more peppery in flavor?

#2 liuzhou

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Posted 06 January 2011 - 07:38 PM

I use red onions in everything - because red onions are the only ones available here in this part of China. I do sometimes miss the sweetness of white onions, but in general I find red works fine.

#3 heidih

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Posted 06 January 2011 - 08:15 PM

I like red onion in raw or quick pickled preps. I have used them in cooked dishes when they were the only onion around. They seemed less strongly flavored to me; as if the cooking that normally mellows a yellow or white onion "mellowed" the flavor too far. The color bleed also bothers me a bit. That said, I have never done a side by side comparison so I may be having my taste sense fooled by the visual.

#4 jsmeeker

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Posted 06 January 2011 - 08:26 PM

I too like the red onion in raw dishes. Previously, my only other onion type was white. Then, I switched to using yellow when not using red onions in raw dishes. At one point, I learned white onions were the standard for Mexican cuisine. So, I now will buy white onions again. Of course, sometimes I still use red in Mexcian. It's what I still prefer in guacamole (largely due to the color contrast they give me) and frequently in fresh salsas.

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#5 chef.vaizard

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Posted 06 January 2011 - 10:04 PM

Like many who've posted here, I too use red onions in raw preparations, especially with fish. They add a harmonious bite and crunch to ceviche. I've also used them in a basic chili recipe when its all I had on hand. My wife is Dominican and she almost exclusively uses reds: there's a particular sweetness that it imparts to Dominican cuisine.
I happen to think that the color bleed is beautiful. I've also used reds for an onion jam with honey and sherry vinegar.
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#6 RobertCollins

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Posted 06 January 2011 - 10:53 PM

I use almost all yellow onions but; I like purple in fresh [raw] preps and whites sometimes when they seem like the right one to use. I do hope someone out there knows an answer to what, when, and where,

Also true Walla Walla sweets should be eaten like apples. It is a waste to cook them.

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#7 Pierogi

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Posted 06 January 2011 - 10:54 PM

Like everyone else (I've always been sort of a follower, lol), I mainly use reds in salads, sandwiches and salsas - i.e., raw applications. They're usually sweeter (although I've had some red ones that blew my sinuses out) and crunchier. They seem to hold the crispness longer than the whites or the yellows.

chef.vaizard, I can see the alure of the color change in something like a jam, but normally I find it very "icky" for want of a more technical term. They don't brown, they don't bleed out totally, they just, sort of slimy looking. I'd never use red onions in a sauce or an application where the background was light. I have used them in a red wine sauce for pasta, but the wine makes up for the color change.

Around here the yellows are about 1/3 cheaper than the whites, and they seem to last longer, so they're my onion of choice. I will buy whites if I'm making a serious Mexican feast, since I know they're prefered in that cuisine, but 99 times out of a hundred, it's yellows in my pantry for cooking, with one or two sweets (Walla Walla, Mayans or Vidalias) or a red for raw use.
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#8 Doodad

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Posted 07 January 2011 - 06:02 AM

I use reds for any spicy dish Asian or Latin. And pickles; they look too cool all pink.

The plentiful vidalias here make up the bulk of onion use.

I use whites for carmelization and onion soup as the sweets get too cloying in that usage.

Tobacco onions, when I can find them, are immediately used in carmelization and frying.

#9 chef.vaizard

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Posted 07 January 2011 - 06:19 AM

Tobacco onions, when I can find them, are immediately used in carmelization and frying.


Tobacco onions?! Sounds pretty amazing. Do tell.
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#10 Doodad

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Posted 07 January 2011 - 06:51 AM

I don't know their real name, but the ones out of the sandy soils in eastern NC aka Tobacco Road. Always heard those were the ones to make the dish and have seen them labeled as such in stores when they were in season. They are flatter than a regular yellow onion. Great for rings too.

Maybe it is a marketing ploy, but they do have a distinct taste somewhere between a yellow and a sweet.

#11 Jaymes

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Posted 07 January 2011 - 10:53 AM

Like most, I think the sweet mild onions are not particularly good for most cooking applications. They don't impart a strong onion flavor, and their special qualities seem to be lost after cooking. And although I think they're tasty on a shish-k-bob, I'd never use something like Vidalias or Maui or Texas sweet onions in, say, a soup or stew.

I use yellow for most cooking applications; white for Mexican dishes. Don't know if it's true, but I read once that white onions have more water in them. Beats me, but since I know they're standard in Mexican recipes, that's what I use.

That said, it does seem to me that the typical red onions available in the supermarkets today are nowhere nearly so sweet as the red/purple onions that we used to get. I remember being told when I was young that the flatter the red/purple onion was, the sweeter. Now, for the most part, they don't seem flat and they don't seem sweet. I'm not sure what happened.

I will say that a few weeks back, I bought a bag of purple onions labeled "Spanish Sweets." They were flat and they were sweet. But before I saw those, I'd say it's been years since I've seen flat, sweet purple onions in the stores.



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Edited by Jaymes, 07 January 2011 - 10:57 AM.


#12 andiesenji

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Posted 07 January 2011 - 12:23 PM

I use the locally grown "brown" onions in most applications because they have a hearty, true onion flavor that is not lost in prolonged cooking.
I use the "Spanish" yellow onions for caramelized onions or onion marmalade.

I use white onions in some dishes.

I use red onions in salads, pickles and similar applications.

There is one grower here in the Antelope valley that raises the Italian "torpedo" red onions and they are only available for a short time, usually September/October in the local produce market. The rest of the crop goes to restaurants, hotels and etc.

These latter onions are much different than regular red onions. They are stronger, hotter and have a very robust flavor. I slice and dry them because they don't lose much flavor when dried.
I use them in dishes where I want a lot of distinct onion flavor - meatloaf, braciola, etc.
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#13 nakji

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Posted 07 January 2011 - 06:50 PM

I use red onions in everything - because red onions are the only ones available here in this part of China. I do sometimes miss the sweetness of white onions, but in general I find red works fine.


Me too. I can't find white onions, except at the posh ex-pat supermarket, where they're quite expensive. I just use reds, and if they're too sharp for using raw, I soak them in icewater for 30 minutes to take out the sting.

I often just substitute small leeks in place of onion, if it's all I have on hand. Since I don't have a terribly large selection, I've just learnt to substitute and make do.

#14 Peter the eater

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Posted 07 January 2011 - 07:24 PM

Do you substitute, interchange red onions when a dish calls for yellow? Do you use the red onion because it's more spicy, more peppery in flavor?


I'm of the mind it matters most when they're raw. Once cooked, the strong colors and flavors mellow.
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#15 Pierogi

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Posted 07 January 2011 - 10:41 PM

...That said, it does seem to me that the typical red onions available in the supermarkets today are nowhere nearly so sweet as the red/purple onions that we used to get. I remember being told when I was young that the flatter the red/purple onion was, the sweeter. Now, for the most part, they don't seem flat and they don't seem sweet. I'm not sure what happened....

Jaymes ! THANK YOU ! I thought I was either loosing my mind or totally becoming a wimp ! Seems most red onions these days are hotter than the whites/browns/yellows. About a quarter of the time around here I can find them that are sweet, but not as sweet as I remember. The rest of the time they are mind-blowers. I always taste before throwing them willy-nilly into my salads. And it's a crapshoot. I can't tell by look or feel which is going to be nice and mellow and which is going to blow the top of my head off.
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#16 andiesenji

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Posted 08 January 2011 - 10:52 AM


...That said, it does seem to me that the typical red onions available in the supermarkets today are nowhere nearly so sweet as the red/purple onions that we used to get. I remember being told when I was young that the flatter the red/purple onion was, the sweeter. Now, for the most part, they don't seem flat and they don't seem sweet. I'm not sure what happened....

Jaymes ! THANK YOU ! I thought I was either loosing my mind or totally becoming a wimp ! Seems most red onions these days are hotter than the whites/browns/yellows. About a quarter of the time around here I can find them that are sweet, but not as sweet as I remember. The rest of the time they are mind-blowers. I always taste before throwing them willy-nilly into my salads. And it's a crapshoot. I can't tell by look or feel which is going to be nice and mellow and which is going to blow the top of my head off.


Here's a "trick" to solve that problem.

Cut your onions however you are going to use them, arrange in a shallow bowl and pour in some milk. Stir them to be sure they are all in contact with the milk and let them soak for 20-30 minutes. Rinse well in a colander, dry and use in your salads.

It's amazing how well this method tempers onions that have too much "bite."
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#17 nakji

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Posted 08 January 2011 - 07:23 PM

I use water for the same trick, Andie; mainly since I don't keep milk around the house regularly. It works well, too.

#18 Shalmanese

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Posted 09 January 2011 - 05:26 AM

When I'm using raw onions in a salad/ceviche etc. I put the thinly sliced onions in the vinager mixture 15 minutes ahead of time. It takes the bite out of the onions and adds a subtle onioniness to the rest of the dish.
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#19 Will

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Posted 10 January 2011 - 12:45 AM

I remember someone claiming that the main differences are psychological -- that in a blindfolded test, most people can't tell the difference, either raw or cooked. I just searched to see if this was published anywhere and couldn't find it. I've always been a little nervous to test this theory on myself.

I do think that the red onions have something slightly different going on in terms of texture and appearance (raw, the red part seems to have a little "snap" before the crunch of the white part). I'll often use red onions in uncooked dips / sauces, when pickling along with beets, sometimes for grilling / caramelizing, or on the rare occasions that I use onion instead of shallot in salads, but tend to use white or yellow in other applications. In a pinch, though, I've substituted red onions where I'd normally use standard ones, and don't think it makes too much difference to the final application.