Are white onions and yellow onions really all that different? The answer may surprise you. Plus, a grocery store expert shares what to look for when shopping for onions.
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If your next dinner recipe simply calls for an onion, do you know what to reach for? Onions are a vegetable you likely should be eating more of, but does it actually make a difference whether you use a white onion or a yellow onion? Here's what you should know about white and yellow onions, including their best uses and how to select the best onions in the grocery store.

What's the difference between a white and a yellow onion?

Yellow onions are great workhorse onions, which is why so many people keep a sack of them in their pantry. Their aroma and flavor is a bit stronger than that of white onions, but not overwhelmingly so when cooked (some people may find the taste of raw yellow onions off putting).

"If you ever have a recipe that calls for [cooking] onions, the yellow onion is your best bet," says Duane Hendershot, general manager of Healthy Living Market in Saratoga Springs, New York.

White onions are slightly milder in flavor than yellow onions, and taste a bit more sweet. If you're adding raw onions to a sandwich, salad or salsa, a white onion, rather than a yellow, may be the way to go. As their names suggest, white onions have white papery skin and a white interior, while yellow onions have more of a golden hue to their flesh with a dark yellow or brown skin. (Spanish onions are a type of yellow onion and are often used and labeled as yellow onions.)

As you may have noticed while cruising down the produce aisle at your local market, white onions tend be priced slightly higher than yellow onions, usually by around a dime or so per pound. According to the National Onion Association, yellow onions make up about 87% of the commercial onion crop in the United States, while white onions only make up 5%.

How are they similar?

Despite the vast differences in crops, both white and yellow onions are similar in shape and size, and have layers of dry, paper-like skin. (They're also more nutrient-dense than you might think.)

"If you ever feel that your [cut] onions are too sharp, you can soak any of them in water for 30 minutes to 1 hour. It will smooth out the pungency," suggests Hendershot. That sulfurous scent, which may increase with the age of either yellow or white onions, will also diminish when the onions are cooked. Because sulfuric compounds are released by raw onions when they're cut, both yellow and white onions may make you cry when slicing or dicing them. (Learn The Best Way to Cut an Onion without Crying, aside from sticking your head in the freezer between slices.)

How to select the best onions

Instead of grabbing the first onion you see from the bounty at your local grocery store, take a moment to do a quick check that they are "very firm, heavy for their size, and free of bruises," says Hendershot. "They should have dry, papery skin that is free from any sprouts."

Once you're home, keep your whole onions in a cool and dry spot away from heat sources. If you're only planning to use part of an onion, save the rest for later in the refrigerator inside an airtight bag or container. It's even better if your container is glass so the odor won't linger. Or, make meal prepping soups and casseroles a breeze by slicing and dicing your onions before freezing them!

Can they be used interchangeably?

If you don't have any yellow onions on hand for your next soup or sauce, white onions can be substituted with minimal differences in the end result. However, we wouldn't recommend eating yellow onions raw for your salads and sandwiches, unless you don't mind the more pungent flavor and aroma.

Best uses for white onions

Hendershot says white onions are best enjoyed "raw or in flash cooking (think stir-fry or grilling)." White onions are also "used a lot in potato salads and dishes like guacamole."

Best uses for yellow onions

Since yellow onions are so versatile, they can be used in just about any recipe. But think outside the box and try Honey-Glazed Onions or Caramelized Balsamic Onions as an unexpected side during your next dinner party.

Other onions to use

Aside from white and yellow onions, red onions are also commonly called for. However, the flavor profile is completely different, so this is one substitution you might not want to make. Red onions have a more tangy, sweet flavor, that makes them an excellent addition to salsas, sandwiches, and other fresh recipes where you want to pack a crisp punch. When cooked, their bright color fades but the flavor sticks around.

Don't forget about these members of the allium family:

  • Cipollini onions: These are sweet and shaped almost like a flying saucer. They have a pale yellow skin and disc shape that makes them ideal for a simple roasted side dish.
  • Pearl onions: White pearl onions are the most common, but you may find yellow and red as well. They are small in size and often found in the frozen foods section of the supermarket. 
  • Shallots: Shallots are larger in size than pearl onions and have an elongated body. They can be incorporated into dressings, side dishes, and more.
  • Vidalia onions: These look very similar to a yellow onion, but are more squat in shape. Vidalias are very mild in flavor, taste sweet and come together beautifully in a simple marinated salad with cucumbers.

Bottom line

So, is a yellow onion better than a white onion, or vice versa? Both yellow and white onions have a place in your kitchen and can be used interchangeably in a pinch. But generally, use yellow onions in cooked dishes and white onions in raw preparations. Now that you know about their differences, put those onions to work in one of our 30 Favorite Onion Recipes.