Onion Essentials

Onions and other members of the allium family, such as shallots and scallions, are kitchen staples that lend flavor and texture to everything from stews and soups to casseroles and salads. Ranging in color from red to white to yellow, they can be mild and sweet or strong and pungent.

Besides enhancing the taste of many dishes, onions offer a nutritional boost: They’re a good source of vitamin C, fiber, and folate, and shallots contain vitamin B6 and iron. In addition to vitamin C, onions contain other antioxidants, including the flavonoid quercetin, which may help prevent cancer and heart disease by combatting cell-damaging free radicals in the body. Quercetin is found in apples and tea, too, but it is more readily absorbed from onions than from tea or apples, research shows.

Want to get more of the health-promoting substances in onions? Here is a guide to the most common types of onions and a few close relatives. You’ll also find a selection of recipes that feature onions, not necessarily as the central ingredient, but in a flavorful, supporting role.

Red onions
Beautifully colored, red onions are ideal for chopping or slicing for salads, salsas, and garnishes. They maintain their color nicely when cooked, so are great when grilled or roasted. In this tasty entrée, called Chicken Stuffed with Golden Onions & Fontina, thin slices of red onion are caramelized and then combined with fontina cheese to make a stuffing for boneless chicken breast that is served with a flavorful white wine sauce.

Yellow and white onions
Both yellow and white onions are versatile and full-flavored, though they have slightly different uses in the kitchen. You’ll want to use yellow onions if you intend to sauté them, as they turn a rich brown and become slightly sweet when cooked. For salads and for a variety of Mexican dishes, white onions are best since they’re milder. Yellow onions are perfect sautéed and served with this Pan-Roasted Flank Steak and Onions.

Pearl Onions
Mildly flavored and about the size of a marble, pearl onions (which come both fresh and frozen) are delicious cooked and served as a side dish. In this Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Pearl Onions and Fresh Thyme recipe, Brussels sprouts are sautéed in a little olive oil, then combined with pearl onions and fresh thyme before being roasted. Colorful and healthful, this is a great dish to serve with chicken or fish.

Also called green onions, this mildly flavored member of the onion family can be cooked whole or added to a variety of sautéed dishes, stir-fries, salsas, and marinades for flavor and color. When combined with cilantro, rice vinegar, fish sauce, and Oriental chili paste, scallions add zest to our marinade for Pork Kebabs with Scallion-Chili Paste. After marinating, the pork cubes are threaded on skewers along with zucchini and then grilled.

Though they actually resemble garlic more than onions, these pleasantly mild relatives of the onion have a rich brown skin and a sweet taste, especially when cooked. In a salad dressing, shallots really shine. When roasted, they become very sweet and flavorful. As a central ingredient in our Artichoke Hearts with Curried Chickpeas and Shallots, finely chopped shallots are sautéed and added to garbanzo beans and artichoke hearts.

Resembling giant scallions, leeks (which are related to both garlic and onions) have a milder flavor than either. Leeks can be cooked whole, though they are more likely to be chopped and added to soups and salads. If you’re looking for a delicious vegetarian dish, try our Stir-Fried Seitan with Mushrooms and Leeks, a flavorful blend of crunchy fresh vegetables combined with the vegetarian protein known as seitan (also known as wheat gluten). The delicious dish is seasoned with rice vinegar and dark sesame oil for an unusually good quick and easy meal.

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