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Do Mexicans use yellow or white onions?

Onions are a staple ingredient in Mexican cuisine, adding flavor and aroma to many classic dishes. Both yellow and white onions are commonly used in Mexican cooking, but one variety tends to be more prominent than the other depending on the region and dish.

Yellow Onions in Mexican Cuisine

Yellow onions, also sometimes called brown onions, are the most commonly used onion variety in traditional Mexican cooking. Their bright flavor and bold aroma make them an indispensable ingredient.

Yellow onions are preferred for dishes like:

  • Salsa – Salsa recipes usually call for yellow onions which add a punchy, pungent flavor.
  • Guacamole – Along with tomatoes, garlic, chiles, and cilantro, finely chopped yellow onions are a standard guacamole ingredient.
  • Pico de gallo – The classic fresh Mexican salsa is made with chopped tomatoes, chiles, cilantro, lime, and hearty chunks of yellow onions.
  • Tacos – Ground meat tacos are often cooked with sliced or diced yellow onions for added depth.
  • Frijoles charros – Pinto beans simmered with bacon, chiles, and yellow onions make this hearty Mexican bean dish.
  • Carne asada – Grilled steak is typically marinated and served with slices of yellow onions.
  • Quesadillas and sopes – Yellow onions are added to the fillings for these popular pan-fried snacks.
  • Tortas – Mexican sandwich rolls are often stacked with yellow onion slices.

The sharp, biting flavor of yellow onions cuts through the richness of Mexican dishes like tacos, enchiladas, tamales, and more. Their higher sulfur content gives them a more pungent aroma and taste compared to white onions.

White Onions in Mexican Cooking

Though less common than yellow onions, white onions are still used in a variety of authentic Mexican dishes.

Their milder, sweeter flavor makes them suitable for dishes where a more delicate onion taste is desired. They tend to be favored for:

  • Soups and stews – White onions are often used to flavor brothy dishes like pozole, menudo, and caldo de pollo.
  • Rice dishes – Mexican rice pilafs and sides will sometimes contain sauteed white onions for mellower allium flavor.
  • Salads – Diced white onions are added to fresh salads like ensalada de nopalitos for a lighter, crisper taste compared to yellow.
  • Salsas – Some white onion varieties like the cipollini have become popular in Mexico’s fine dining scene for gourmet salsas.
  • Pickled onions – Thinly sliced white onions pickled with lime juice and chiles make a common taco topping.
  • Fresco – The traditional salsa of chopped tomatoes, white onions, cilantro, and chiles.

White onions have a higher water content and lower sulfur level, muting their bite and bringing sweetness to the forefront. They are ideal for milder dishes, fresh salsas, and as a raw topping.

Onion Varieties in Mexican Cuisine

Beyond basic yellow and white onions, some other varieties are used regionally in Mexican cooking:

  • Red onions – Similar to yellow but with a vivid purple-red color. Often used raw for salsa.
  • Sweet onions – Very mild white or yellow onions. Nice for grilling whole.
  • Green onions – Smaller immature white onions with green stalks. Used raw to top tacos.
  • Cipollini – Small, flat Italian white onions. Gaining popularity in upscale Mexican restaurants.
  • Shallots – Smaller and more subtly flavored than regular onions. Sometimes cooked into sauces.
  • Ramps/wild onions – Foraged spring onions with garlicky flavor. Used in some rural areas.

These specialty onion types add diversity but are less common than the standard yellow and white bulbs.

Regional Onion Preferences

While yellow and white onions both appear across Mexico, some regions have definitive preferences:

Region Onion Preference
Northern Mexico Yellow
Central Mexico Yellow
Southern Mexico White

In southern Mexican states like Oaxaca and Chiapas, cooks lean toward milder white onions over the more assertive yellow variety. But in the cuisine of northern and central Mexico, the strong flavor of yellow onions dominates.

Onions by Dish

While onion preferences vary regionally, most Mexican dishes favor one onion color over the other:

Dish Onion Used
Tacos Yellow
Tamales Yellow
Tortilla soup White
Guacamole Yellow
Pico de gallo Yellow
Quesadillas Yellow
Enchiladas Yellow
Ceviche White

Onions with bold flavor like yellow are chosen for strongly seasoned dishes. White onions suit milder plates and fresh salsas.

Pickled Onions

Though onion type can vary by recipe, pickled onions in Mexican cuisine are most often white. Reasons include:

  • Milder flavor – White onions are less overpowering when pickled.
  • Crisp texture – White onions retain crunchiness better through pickling.
  • Bright color – Pickled white onions have a clean, bright appearance.
  • Raw taste – The white onion’s spicy raw bite balances the vinegar.

However, pickled yellow and red onions can also be found depending on regional traditions.

Caramelized Onions

For caramelized onions, Mexicans overwhelmingly favor the yellow variety. The reasons include:

  • Fuller flavor – Yellow onions become intensely sweet when caramelized.
  • Aroma – Yellow onions develop a rich, mouthwatering aroma during cooking.
  • Browning – Yellow onions caramelize from translucent to deep brown.
  • Soft texture – Yellow onions break down into a soft jam-like texture.

White onions can also be caramelized but lack the same depth of flavor and color transformation.

Raw Onions

When onions are served raw, white tends to be the preferred variety. Factors include:

  • Mild taste – Raw white onions have a less sulfurous bite.
  • Crispness – White onions retain more crunch when raw.
  • Brightness – The white color looks fresher and brighter raw.
  • Juiciness – Raw white onions have higher water content.

However, raw yellow onion can provide nice sharp contrast on tacos, tostadas, and in pico de gallo.

Grilled Onions

For grilling, sweet onions are the top choice in Mexican cooking. Their attributes include:

  • Mild flavor – Grilled sweet onions are mellow and slightly sweet.
  • Juiciness – Sweet onions retain moisture well on the grill.
  • Whole slices – Sweet onions can be grilled in sturdy slices.
  • Caramelizing – Sweet onions develop rich flavor when charred.

While sweet varieties like Vidalias are prized for grilling, white and yellow onions can be used too.

Onion Quantities

In recipes specifying “1 onion”, Mexicans usually default to:

  • Yellow onion – Central and Northern Mexico
  • White onion – Southern Mexico

However, onion type and quantity can vary by individual recipe, cook’s preference, and region.

Substituting Onion Types

Yellow and white onions can generally substitute for each other with a few adjustments:

  • Reduce yellow onion quantity by 1/4 to 1/3 – They have bolder flavor.
  • Increase white onion quantity by 1/3 to 1/2 – They are milder.
  • Expect change in flavor profile – Yellow gives sharp bite, white is sweeter.
  • Account for change in color – Yellow will brown, white is pale.

When swapping onion types, expect the final dish to turn out a bit differently than intended.

Onion Storage

Properly stored, yellow and white onions have slightly different shelf lives:

  • Yellow onions – 3 to 4 weeks
  • White onions – 2 to 3 weeks

Whole, dry bulbs stored in a cool, dark place provide longest life for both varieties.

Cooking Onions

When cooking, yellow and white onions behave a bit differently:

  • Browning – Yellow onions brown more readily when cooked.
  • Caramelizing – Yellow onions get sweeter and darker caramelized.
  • Sauteing – White onions tend to sauté faster with higher moisture.
  • Boiling – White onions usually cook faster in boiling water.
  • Frying – Yellow onions can crisp up better when fried due to lower water.

Understanding these characteristics helps ensure onions are cooked optimally no matter the variety.

Onion Nutrition

Yellow and white onions have very similar nutritional profiles. They are low calorie, fat free, and provide key nutrients:

1 Medium Onion Yellow White
Calories 64 65
Carbs 15g 16g
Fiber 3g 2g
Sugar 7g 9g
Protein 2g 1g
Vitamin C 12% 10%

Both offer antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamin C, and only minimal natural sugars. Onion type does not significantly impact nutritional value.

Cost Comparison

Onion Average Cost (Mexico)
Yellow $0.80/lb
White $1.00/lb

Due to higher demand, yellow onions are generally cheaper than white onions in Mexico. But prices fluctuate based on crop yields and season.


In surveys, yellow onions are considered the most essential onion variety for Mexican cooking:

  • Yellow onions – 75% say most important
  • White onions – 20% say most important
  • Other varieties – 5% say most important

While white onions play a role, Mexicans view the bold yellow onion as the fundamental building block of authentic local cuisine.


In Mexican cooking, yellow and white onions both make frequent appearances, but the use of each variety depends on the region, dish, and preparation method. Yellow onions are most predominant thanks to their robust flavor and aroma. But white onions bring a milder sweetness and crisp freshness that balances and rounds out Mexican food.

Knowing the nuances of how yellow and white onion types differ allows cooks to make the best choice for a given recipe. Though onions seem simple, their variations impact the final outcome of many great Mexican dishes.