Garlic powder was always my go-to. Whenever a dish needed a little zhushing up, I’d turn to these golden grains. That is, until I was introduced to onion powder.
Wow, I realized. This is the subtle flavor that gives batters and breading for chicken and fish zip. It’s a zero-effort way to throw the earthy edges of steak into sharp relief. It gives pork a greater depth, soups more oomph, and provides the magic in sour cream and onion potato chips.
With a bottle in hand, I suddenly possessed the power to amplify anything. Powdered zhuzh, if you will; flavor fairy dust that adds a touch of wonder with every little sprinkle.
What is Onion Powder?
Onions are part of one of the most necessary, personality-filled families of plants: alliums. They are prepared in countless ways and essential to many global cuisines. Onion powder is theorized to come from Egypt, based on earliest records of dry grinding. Essentially, onion powder is the vegetable’s dehydrated and pulverized form, broken down into finishes as fine as a powder or as coarse as grains of rough sand.
What Does Onion Powder Taste Like?
Onion powder has a flavor somewhere between raw and cooked onion. Zesty, sharp, and pungent, onion powder has the ability to liven up whatever you’re cooking with a fresh acid that’s tempered by a not-so-subtle sweetness. It’s snappy in its bite and aggressive from first contact. It leaves a distinctive aftertaste that includes a hint of garlic, but while it’s less pungent than garlic, it’s not as smooth as its sister spice.
Onion Powder vs. Garlic Powder
Being close relatives, it’s easy to confuse onion and garlic powder. It’s even easier to mistake onion powder for garlic salt, which are strikingly similar in color.
Depending on the variety, garlic powder’s color can range from pale and buttery to deep yellow. Onion powder can be bright white to gentle amber. Both impart savory, acidic, pungent elements. These similar qualities make them complementary, but not exact swaps. Garlic powder will be a bit smokier, smoother, and less aggressive but not as sweet or assertive as onion powder.
Onion Powder vs. Onion Salt
Just like garlic salt, onion salt is just onion powder conveniently mixed with table salt. A big benefit of onion salt—in addition to the obvious freedom of skipping a seasoning step—is that it’s more naturally resistant to caking, something onion powder is particularly susceptible to. The salt helps to absorb moisture away from hydration-hungry onion powder and keeps the granules separated. It also slows down onion oil evaporation, preserving its potency.
However, using onion salt also means you’re relinquishing a certain amount of control over your seasoning. You won’t have as much control over the amount of salt or the type of salt.
Varieties of Onion Powder
Although onion powder is considered common, it varies not only from type to type but from brand to brand. First, you’ll need to decide on texture. True onion powder is the most concentrated and pungent. Its flour-fine milling allows it to hit you immediately with flavor. Granulated onions, also labeled as powder, are less broken down and therefore punchier when bloomed and less readily absorbed.
Onion powder is typically commercially made with inexpensive firm white onions. Some brands are toasted, giving the powder a golden hue. Toasting onions reduces pungency and warms up flavor, making it smoother. Flavor and appearance can be impacted by the manufacturer’s use or omission of stems, roots, or even skins, so it’s best to try a few before crowning one your favorite.
Onion powder can also be easily found blended with other alliums, herbs, or both. For example, Trader Joe’s Onion Salt blend is a fun choice with its blend of powders, flakes, and dried stems.
Dehydrated vs. Flakes vs. Granulated vs. Powdered Onion
Dehydrated, freeze-dried, vacuum shelf-dried, or flow-dried onions are solid forms of shriveled, mince-size cuts of onion that you can reconstitute in your cooking. Some are irradiated to protect from microbial contamination, but not everyone sees that as a plus. When used in cooking, know that bigger pieces of dried onion will pull liquid out of your dish like a sponge.
Onion flakes are fantastic for fragrance, flavor, and crunchy texture, particularly the toasted kind. You may recognize them in everything bagel seasoning.
Granulated onion and onion powder are great for even onion flavor distribution with minimal effort. With onion powder, you don’t have to worry about inadvertently adding more moisture or drying out your dish. It’s an instant infusion of flavor with a potency 10 times stronger than fresh onion.
Where to Buy Onion Powder
Onion powder is a common ingredient that can be found at nearly any grocery store in the spice aisle. I love Simple Truth Organic onion powder—they’re one of the only makers that carry a grind so fine it’s like dust. McCormick is a consistent everyday pick for most home cooks, and it’s not hard to find organic versions. Additionally, you can also find “budget” brands like Badia in the international foods aisle. Specialty spice stores like Penzey’s and online merchants including Amazon also sell it.
As you’re shopping, be aware that what makes a good bottle or jar of onion powder is not the color. Unfortunately, you won’t know if you have a fresh batch until you get home and open it. What you want is a strong, impactful aroma that will waft up with warmth, sweetness, and sunshine as soon as you peel back the seal. You’ll know it as soon as it hits you.
How to Store
Like all herbs and spices, onion powder is best kept in a cool, dark pantry, sealed and airtight. Under ideal conditions, it will deliver full impact for up to four years.
Onion powder is quick to cake in warm environments at the slightest hint of humidity. Once clumped up, it’s hard to get it to distribute as seamlessly, and contact with moisture releases flavor, causing it to lose its potency.
To reduce risk, don’t hold the bottle over a pot or skillet, letting steam infiltrate the spice. It’s also recommended to give it a shake every so often to keep the particles separate and to discourage mold from growing on any errant water molecules that have snuck in.
Onion Powder Substitutes
You can use fresh onions or shallots in lieu of onion powder, but just be aware that either will add significant moisture to your recipe as its water sweats out during cooking, as well as add considerable volume since you need 10 times as much of the fresh ingredient as you do of powder.
A better bet is onion salt, as long as you adjust the seasoning to reflect that you’re adding one part salt. Onion flakes are also a good swap if you’re okay with the textural changes that come with the addition of bigger pieces. You’ll need one tablespoon per teaspoon.
If you have no onion products on hand, garlic powder will also do as a 1:1 swap.
How to Prep and Cook with Onion Powder
Ideal for those situations where you want the flavor of onions but not the texture, onion powder is an essential seasoning that lifts up spice blends, rubs, and salts. It’s extremely common in spice rubs, particularly those meant for meat, like barbecue.
Onion powder is a superb way to add more flavor to soups and sauces; it dissolves quickly and evenly for a smooth distribution of its flavor. You can also sprinkle it directly onto ingredients before grilling, baking, pan-searing, air-frying, roasting, and more. It’s often combined with flour and other spices in breadings. Personally, I love adding it to zingy potato chip flavors, like sour cream and onion or ranch, to amplify the astringency.
You can also mix onion powder into flavored butters, ground meats for meatloaf, meatballs, and sausage, mash it into potatoes, scramble with eggs or into omelets, or incorporate it into casseroles and pastas.
Recipes Made with Onion Powder
- Sazón Seasoning
- Easy Grilled Steak Fajitas
- Homemade Taco Seasoning
- Slow Cooker Mexican Pulled Pork
- Roasted Broccolini with Creamy Mustard Sauce