I almost always have either white or yellow onions in my kitchen, rarely both. Which type I have on hand is influenced more by what strikes my fancy at the store than my knowledge of the “right” onion for whatever I’m cooking. I rarely pay attention to what kind of onion a recipe calls for unless I’m recipe testing for work, which requires following instructions to the letter.
Though my use-what-I’ve-got approach has never gone awry, someone recently asked me about the differences between the two types of onions. So I reached out to Jay Weinstein, chef-instructor of Plant-Based Culinary Arts at the Institute of Culinary Education to learn more.
Chef Weinstein reassured me that in most cases it’s just fine to sub yellow for white onions and vice versa, but there are differences between the two, and a few dishes when it’s best to choose one over the other unless you’re really in a pinch.
What Is the Difference Between Yellow and White Onions?
“White onions tend to be milder and sweeter than yellow onions—but that doesn’t mean you won’t find yellow onions with higher sugar content, such as Vidalia or Maui varieties,” says chef Weinstein. “White onions are also more tender,” he adds.
Weinstein explains that when cooked, white onions break down more easily into an “onion jam,” while yellow onions retain their structural integrity better. “White onions ‘disappear’ more into long-cooked dishes both due to their color, and their tendency to disintegrate.
What Are the Best Uses for Yellow vs. White Onions?
“Use yellow onions for any sautéed onion dish where you want the presence of onions to stand out, such as topping for pizzas, burgers, and sandwiches,” says Weinstein. “Choose white onions wherever you want the pieces to melt away, as in a goulash or other stew.”
Because of their milder flavor, white onions are also good to use raw, such as in salads, salsas, sandwiches, and burgers. “Taste a slice, though, because some…can be sharp too,” says Weinstein. And just to keep you on your toes, remember that mild yellow onion varieties—like the big, sweet Vidalia and Maui onions mentioned above—are also great raw.
Does It Really Matter Which You Use?
“White and yellow onions are mostly interchangeable,” says Weinstein. “Blindfolded, I doubt that I could taste the difference in a cooked dish.”
That said, if you are looking for an onion for a salad, salsa, or chutney, Weinstein says white onions would be superior. “White onions add snowy elegance to raw plate presentations,” he adds. “Sliced paper thin, ribbons of white onion drape brilliantly upon darker colored items like leafy greens, whereas yellow onion flesh, while also white, has hints of color.”
On the other hand, Weinstein says, “I like the golden color that yellow onion skins lend to stocks and broths.” And while yellow onions have a more natural color than white onions, either type can be caramelized or blackened to build flavor.
White onions tend to be milder, sweeter, and more tender than yellow onions, so they are great both raw as well as cooked when you want something that melts into the dish.
Yellow onions have a bold flavor and hold their shape better when cooked than white onions, making them great when you want a more pronounced onion flavor and texture.
Most of the time, it’s fine to use either. But if you’re cooking for a special occasion or going for a very specific flavor or texture, try to stick to the variety of onions specified in the recipe.