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I used a recipe for a mean black-eyed-pea salad this past weekend which called for a red onion. Since I wanted extra onion flavor in the salad anyway, I decided to pick up a Vidalia onion to throw in as well.

As I was prepping the salad, I got thinking that I didn't know why the original recipe called for a red onion and what adding a different type of onion would do to the salad.

What do different types of onions add to a recipe and when might it be best to use type over another?

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I'm rather lacking in this area of knowledge too. I bet Darin has a useful chunk of knowledge regarding this. –  hobodave Jul 26 '10 at 18:04
    
@hobo oh the irony. See his post and my subsequent comment :-) –  Ben McCormack Jul 26 '10 at 18:31
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4 Answers 4

up vote 17 down vote accepted

The choice of one onion over another is really going to come down to personal preference based on color and flavor.

Red and white onions are usually milder in flavor than yellow onions which is the reason they're often the choice for hamburgers and sandwiches.

Yellow (sometimes referred to as "Spanish") onions tend to have a more pungent flavor.

Sweet onions (Vidalia, Maui, Walla-Walla, Texas 1015) develop more sweetness and fewer sulfuric compounds due to the mineral content of the soil that they're grown in. This is why you can have onion sets (small bulbs) from any of these varieties but they won't necessarily be sweet (or as sweet) because a lot of it has to do with the makeup of the soiling they're grown in.

Two years ago I hosted Jeanne Jones (syndicated writer of "Cook it Light" column for King Features syndicate and writer of over 33 cookbooks including "Canyon Ranch Spa Cookbook") for guest chef cooking classes. If I recall correctly, she said she used primarily white onions because they have a lower sodium content than any other type.

Did that "mean black eyed pea salad" recipe happen to come from a certain "Low Country Cooking Class"? If so, I used it for two reasons: not everyone will have access to Vidalia onions and it provides additional color.

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Yes, it was your recipe :-). It proved to be a great hit at the pool party we went to, even though we forgot to add the celery! –  Ben McCormack Jul 26 '10 at 18:30
    
@Ben: Glad you liked it! While I haven't yet used it in there, I think diced fennel bulb would also add a nice fresh flavor element. That salad is always better the second day after things have blended and melded. –  Darin Sehnert Jul 26 '10 at 18:58
    
Huh, I always thought it was the red onions that were Spanish onions! –  heycam Jul 27 '10 at 0:21
    
There are some inaccuracies in this answer - also it is not sourced. –  RI Swamp Yankee Aug 27 '13 at 19:03
    
@RISwampYankee What is inaccurate? –  Jefromi Jan 26 at 3:50
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Red onion tends to be milder, and more suited to eating raw than white onions. Of course, in salads, red onions can add a bit extra visually as well.

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Here is a visual guide to identifying and using different onion varieties from Epicurious. They break it down like this:

  • Yellow Onions (Spanish onions): Mild but not sweet
  • White Onions : Tangy flavor
  • Red Onions: Sharpest of the common onion varieties
  • Sweet Onions (Vidalia, Bermuda): Sweet and very mild
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While I like the other answers, keep in mind in your case since you're looking to add more onion flavor to the dish that there are alternatives from the typical onions already mentioned.

You can also try more subtle onion flavors from scallions (or green onions) or shallots. For the salad it might make more sense to go with the scallions.

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+1: I like this answer... These onions are great for subtle flavors. –  nicorellius Jul 26 '10 at 22:07
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