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Before we begin our substitute for red onion breakdown, let’s touch (very briefly) on the onion’s origin story.
The humble onion (Allium cepa) is an edible bulb that has been around for over 5000 years, first found in Middle Asia, and it comes in several delightful variations, including the medium-sized red onion. The red onion works best in fresh, raw dishes but will work in cooked dishes too.
The red onion is on the purple side of red, which is why it is also commonly referred to as a purple onion (parts of Europe) or sometimes as a Spanish onion.
The purple-red color is on the outside, while the flesh is white with a mild taste when consumed raw and a sweet taste when cooked, much like that of the familiar yellow onion, albeit less meaty.
An onion packs a lot of flavors, and that is why they are an excellent addition to savory dishes or served fresh with other herbs and vegetables as side dishes.
This versatile vegetable is a fresh produce staple, and if you are all out of red onions today, this list of 10 red onion substitutes will help you find a suitable alternative for your dish of the day.
10 Best Substitutes for Red Onion
The most straightforward substitution for a red onion is another onion – the white onion. It has a mild flavor and is less acidic than the red onion, but it will not change the taste of your cooked dish in any discernable way unless you are a Michelin star chef.
You may use this substitution for raw and cooked dishes. The only place you will lose out is in the looks department.
One of the great things about a red onion is its color, and in a raw dish like salsa, it pops, making a feast for your eyes mixed with the juicy red of your tomatoes and the clean green colors of your cilantro or coriander.
The white onion off-sets this loss in color by contributing a slightly sharper taste to your raw dish.
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If you have neither red nor white onions, all is not lost. Simply substitute it with yellow onion, otherwise known as a brown onion.
This onion has the most robust flavor of the three and works well in roasts, and because of its sweetness, it caramelizes beautifully.
The yellow onion stores the longest, so you will probably have at least one yellow onion in your larder if you have none of the other options.
An onion by another name. Unashamedly, the favorite of chefs around the world. I am looking at you, Hell’s Kitchen. I have yet to watch a cooking show where a red onion was chosen over the shallot at crunch time.
Shallots look like small, elongated bulbs and have a sweet, mild flavor with a hint of garlic.
They do, in fact, grow in clusters like garlic bulbs but are sold separately. They work exceptionally well as a red onion substitute and are less acidic than white onions.
Conveniently, shallots are small, and you can save on waste by using them in dishes designed with one person in mind.
Scallions or green onions are an excellent red onion substitute if you are stir-frying, sautéing, or garnishing.
Think Asian cuisine or hamburger garnish. Scallions are immature onions with two distinct parts, a white part, and a green part. It looks like a small white bulb with a long thin green stalk.
The green part is just as edible as the white “bulb” section. Sliced, they look like little coins from the bottom, eventually becoming green rings depending on how you slick them further up.
They have a very mild flavor and are most common in Asian dishes. Scallions are too delicate to work as a red onion substitute where roasting is part of the dish.
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Leeks are underrated. They make a suitable substitute for red onion when the dish involves roasting or stewing, or making soups. Leeks should not be consumed raw.
They are green and white, and I would describe them as a larger, thicker-looking version of green onion. They are a great choice if you are entirely without any white, yellow, or red onions.
Leeks are one of the non-onion substitutes on my list, with a mild flavor profile and a garlic undertone for punch.
We’re in herb territory now. Chives look like thin, really bright green pieces of grass. Flavor-wise, chives are halfway between leeks and onions and work well for dishes with a mayonnaise component.
Looking at your egg salad sandwich or 4th of July potato salad.
Additionally, chives are a suitable red onion substitute for raw dishes and as a garnish. Chives add a fresh pop of color if your plate needs pep.
Celery is a love-it or hate-it vegetable, but it has its place in your kitchen.
It is a leafy green vegetable with stalks offering a distinctive crunch and flavor.
I don’t love celery, but I can and will use it if I’m out of onions and I need to make stock, soup, or add texture to my green salad.
You have two options here. The daikon radish and the red radish are both root vegetables. The red radish, which looks like a small red bulb, makes for an enjoyable red onion substitute.
Sliced, it has a sharp peppery flavor that is not much like an onion but does very well in fresh summer salads, adding color and crunch when your larder is lacking.
These radishes are suitable for pickling as an alternative to pickled red onion if your dish calls for it.
On the other hand, Daikon radishes look a little like a white carrot and are much milder than their red cousin.
They may serve as a substitute for red onion when you have guests that will pick out the red onion like a two-year-old toddler on a hunger strike or for those who may have digestive problems triggered by consuming acidic onions.
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Onion (Soup) Powder
Sometimes, you want the flavor of the red onion but not the texture, which is when you use onion powder.
I most commonly use onion soup powder in a baked beer bread recipe, where the texture of red onions is inappropriate, but I still need that mild onion flavor.
This is not always appropriate, but if you are a confident cook, you can substitute red onion for garlic in cooked dishes.
Just be careful not to overpower your dish to where all you taste is garlic.
Red onions have a mild and sweet flavor. Garlic is neither of those things, but you can make it work in curries and spice-heavy dishes if you need to remove or swap out your red onion. The color is not an issue because red onions are not as impactful color-wise when cooked.
Rounding Out the Red Onion Substitutes
There you have it-ten amazing red onion substitutes. Let me leave you with a few words of wisdom.
When selecting a red onion substitute, it is important to consider what you are trying to achieve and what dish you are making. Is it raw or cooked, what are the other elements, and will the substitution compliment them? If you bear this in mind, you can’t fail.