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What is a Spanish Onion? Unveiling the Differences Between Spanish and Yellow Onions

Editorial Team
Updated Jan 30, 2024
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What is a Spanish Onion?

Discover the subtle sweetness of the Spanish onion, a culinary favorite renowned for its gentle flavor profile. According to the National Onion Association, Spanish onions are characterized by their larger size, often compared to a softball, and possess a delicate, fine grain with a skin that can range from yellow to white. These onions are not just a treat to the palate when eaten raw, but also a staple in kitchens due to their versatility in cooking. Despite their relatively short shelf life, as noted by Michigan State University, Spanish onions are a low-maintenance choice for home gardeners, offering abundant yields. Understanding what is a Spanish onion can elevate your culinary creations, providing a perfect balance of flavor and texture to a wide array of dishes.

What Does a Spanish Onion Look Like?

Spanish onions look like yellow onions because Spanish onions are a variety of yellow onions. As previously stated, Spanish onions are covered in thin, yellowish skin, and some Spanish onions can grow quite large in size. While Spanish onions and yellow onions look very similar, they are very different when it comes to taste. While raw yellow onions can have a harsh taste, raw Spanish onions are surprisingly sweet.

Are Spanish Onions Sweet?

Spanish onions are sometimes eaten uncooked, or raw, because of the sweet taste they have that you can’t find with other onions in the onion family. These vegetables can be used both in bulb and green form in almost any dish that calls for onions, but they generally taste best when lightly cooked. This is because a Spanish onion has a relatively low sulfur content, which gives it a delicate taste that can be overwhelmed or destroyed through long cooking.

Those who want to enhance the sweetness can grill or gently saute slices of onion for a few minutes, which will make them more aromatic and give them a dark caramel look. Additionally, they can be substituted for regular white or yellow onions or shallots, and can also be substituted for red onions, though they will make the dish a little sweeter. While cooks won’t necessarily use onions in a sweet recipe, Spanish onions can add a little bit of sweetness to savory dishes.

Spanish Onion Substitutes

Spanish onions make a great substitution for other onion varieties, and they make for a nice, mild addition to any recipe. While you can use Spanish onions as a substitute in many dishes for yellow, white, or even red onions, you can’t always use each of those onions instead of Spanish onions in a given recipe.

Because Spanish onions have a sweet flavor, you’d be better off using white onions or sweet onions in place of a Spanish onion for certain dishes. Sometimes, cooking or caramelizing onions can tone down the onion’s flavor, though not always. To maintain the integrity of your meal, milder onions are typically the best substitute for Spanish onions.

Where Can I Buy Spanish Onions?

Sometimes grocery stores may incorrectly label Spanish onions as yellow onions. This can be frustrating if you’re specifically looking for an onion with a mild flavor, like a Spanish onion. If you’re searching for Spanish onions, you may benefit from shopping at a local grocer with locally sourced produce. Cooks might be able to find Spanish onions at a farmers market as well. These places are more likely to distinguish between varieties of produce rather than lumping them all together, making it easier for you to get the type of onion you need.

The primary difference between yellow onions and Spanish onions is the taste of these two varieties. Because Spanish onions look like yellow onions, it can be difficult to know what you’re buying without the opportunity to taste the onion. It can be a struggle to tell the difference between a grocery store’s yellow onion and a Spanish onion. If you’d rather not go on an endless hunt for Spanish onions only to leave the grocery store empty-handed, you can always take the time and effort to plant Spanish onions yourself in your backyard.

How to Plant Yellow Sweet Spanish Onions

Running to the store for onions is a quick solution when you’re in a pinch, but when you plant Spanish onions, you’ll know for sure that you’ve got Spanish onions instead of another type of onion. People can grow Spanish onion plants at home fairly quickly, with it taking about four months for a plant to produce edible fruit. These plants need lots of exposure to the sun, and seeds should be planted about 4 in (10 cm) apart. Once the seeds are in the ground, the soil around them should be kept moist, but not too wet, since this could cause them to rot. To get stronger tasting onions, a sulfate-based fertilizer can be used, while a nitrate-rich fertilizer will make for a milder taste.

When to Harvest Spanish Onions

Onions need plenty of time to plump up, but again, they should only take about four months until they’re ready for you to harvest. To harvest onions correctly, it’s best to look out for clear signs that the onion is ready to be harvested. There are a few things that you can look out for when you think it’s time to harvest your Spanish onions. The bulbs are ready to be harvested when their tops start turning brown and fall over. After harvesting, they should be set out to dry for about a week, and then the tops should be cut off before storage, leaving an inch (2.5 cm) or so of stem. You can ensure your onions last as long as possible by storing them correctly.

How to Store Spanish Onions

Spanish onions can generally last a few weeks when stored properly, though they don't last as long as other varieties, since they have more water and sugar in them. The most important thing when storing them is to make sure that they're in a cool, dry place and have enough ventilation. An open paper bag or a clean pair of panty hose often works well for storage. Storing a Spanish onion in a plastic bag will cause it to go bad much more quickly, since it won't get enough air and the bag can trap moisture, which causes rot.

Whether you like raw onions on your burger or cooked onions in your chicken soup, onions are an essential ingredient in most kitchens. Some onion lovers enjoy eating raw onions, though onions are frequently purchased to cook and mix into recipes. Because of the mild, versatile flavor of Spanish onions, they make an excellent addition to recipes. Whether you buy Spanish onions or grow them yourself in your backyard, onions are a staple in any kitchen.

Spanish Onion vs Yellow Onion

Spanish onions can be either yellow or white in color, but their flavor is closer to that of yellow onions than to white ones. Spanish onions are, however, milder than yellow onions and are often eaten raw. They are also slightly larger than the average yellow onion and don’t last quite as long in your pantry (though if exposed to relatively dry air in a well-ventilated spot, they should still keep for two or three weeks). Don’t put uncut Spanish, yellow, red, or white onions in the refrigerator as the more moisture-dense air will cause them to go bad more quickly. Once cut, these types of onions will keep for several days if refrigerated in a sealed container.

Are Spanish Onions Sweet?

Although both Spanish onions and many varieties of sweet onions have location-based names (well-known sweet onions include Vidalia, Maui, and Walla Walla), Spanish onions have less sugar and don’t fall into the sweet onion category. They are, however, still a bit sweeter than typical yellow onions, which are already noticeably sweeter than white and red onions.

Are Spanish Onions a Healthy Food?

Onions in general are low in calories and high in fiber and vitamin C, and they also provide a portion of manganese, vitamin B6, folate, and many other nutrients. Onions also contain organosulfur compounds, which research indicates may have a positive effect on blood pressure and cholesterol levels (onions are also naturally fat- and cholesterol-free). While red onions tend to contain more antioxidants and flavonoids than other varieties, Spanish and yellow onions are close behind; white onions have somewhat lower levels but are still a healthy vegetable.

Will Chopping Spanish Onions Make You Cry?

Sweet onions are less likely to produce tears than Spanish onions because of their higher sugar and lower sulfur content, although this can vary somewhat depending on the specific soil each onion was grown in. There are many tips and tricks you can try to reduce or prevent crying while chopping. Tight-fitting safety glasses or swimming goggles are perhaps the most effective, but other ideas include lighting a candle next to the chopping board or running the vent hood over your stove, freezing the onions or soaking them in cold water prior to chopping, and making sure that your kitchen knives are well-sharpened and in good condition (always a wise idea regardless of what you’re cooking).

Cooking with Spanish Onions

Spanish, yellow, white, or red onions can generally be substituted for each other in recipes, but the results will be a little different depending on which type you pick. Spanish onions are most similar in flavor and texture to yellow onions (which are usually the go-to option). Red onions tend to have the strongest and sharpest flavor, while white onions usually leave less of an aftertaste. Remember that Spanish onions will be a bit sweeter than these other types, but don’t substitution them for sweet onions unless you’re deliberately trying to bring down the sugar content or taste of a dish. Because Spanish onions have a slightly more delicate flavor, you will probably get the best results by cooking them for a bit less time than you would other types. They respond well to caramelizing and sauteing.

Raw Spanish onions are a great choice for sandwiches, hot dogs, and salads because they are juicy and less pungent than other varieties. You can also cut a thick slice from the center and grill it for a few moments to bring out the sweetness before topping a burger with it.

Growing Spanish Onions at Home

Spanish onions are usually quick and easy to grow in your backyard. You can plant seeds, seedlings, or bulbs (usually called "sets"). Seeds can be started indoors for transplanting eight to ten weeks later, or you can sew them directly in your garden bed in late winter or early spring. Growing onions from sets tends to be trickier, but some home gardeners prefer this method. Plants should be spaced two to six inches apart.

Spanish onions need frequent light watering and lots of direct sunlight. You can experiment with different types of fertilizer to see how they affect the flavor. A nitrate-based fertilizer will likely result in a less pungent flavor than a sulfur-based one, but it may differ based on your original soil chemistry. Spanish onions are one of the quickest-growing varieties and are usually ready for harvesting in less than four months. You’ll be able to tell when to harvest because the tops of the plants fall over and begin to turn brown.

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Discussion Comments
By anon973301 — On Oct 09, 2014

If you keep the cut side down as long as possible while cutting, you will avoid the tears. Slicing, no problem; dicing, you'll start to tear up, but you will be done before it gets bad. If you have to cut more than one, I would include another tip.

By anon949855 — On May 07, 2014

The best solution to' no tears' is to get someone else to chop them!

By anon347027 — On Sep 03, 2013

The only time I've ever heard of wearing goggles to cut onions was in an industrial setting. They were dicing a thousand pounds of onions per day. These workers wore full face and skin protections and respirators!

As part of a company familiarization tour, my group crossed this room unprotected. It was only a 20-25 foot wide room and we were in it for only about 15-30 seconds, but I will remember it for the rest of my life. Our eyes were stinging and watering for an hour afterwards.

I have never complained about onions bothering my eyes since.

By SarahGen — On Nov 13, 2012

This is the kind of onion that is available in all the Mediterranean countries. It's really flavorful and sweet and softens quickly when it's cooked.

After spending two years cooking with Spanish sweet onion regularly, I'm so disappointed with the yellow onions I use here in the States. I usually cannot find Spanish onions in grocery stores or they just cost more.

Yellow onions look similar but they are less sweet, more acidic and take longer to cook.

By tamas52 — On Oct 18, 2012

Cutting an onion in gloves and with safety glasses is over the top. We've been cooking in kitchens world-wide from the early ages, and women have cooked all over the world without this nonsense for hundreds of years. Come on, now!

By catapult43 — On Nov 25, 2011

What works really well for me is chopping the onion on the counter close to a turned on gas stove burner.

It seems that the compound released by chopping the onion is affected by the burning gas so it does not reach the eyes, therefore there is no crying.

By anon138183 — On Dec 30, 2010

Wear non-latex gloves while cutting up onions and peppers and that will stop the tears and burning.

By anon129843 — On Nov 25, 2010

I got this tip years ago from a magazine, and I find it to be foolproof. Just sprinkle your cutting board with lemon juice, and there will be no more tears.

By wiesen — On Nov 12, 2010

These tricks work fairly well, but goggles tend to be the best way to avoid crying. You cry when you cut onions because cutting destroys cell walls, creating a volatile compound that is released by the onion. This mixes with the tears that naturally moisten your eyes and creates a weak sulfuric acid.

This is why your eyes burn and you tear up while cutting onions. The best way to avoid this is to wear goggles. You can buy goggles specially made for this, or wear goggles you might have for swimming. Wearing goggles may look a bit silly, but your eyes won't burn and you'll have no more tears.

By calabama71 — On Nov 11, 2010

@alex94: Another thing that you can do is chill the onion first. That helps to keep the sulfur compounds inactive.

The Spanish onion is much less harsh than a regular onion. It is actually the one that is least likely to bring you to tears.

By wesley91 — On Nov 11, 2010

@alex94: Although the Spanish onion is not quite as bad as other onions on the tear factor, they still make us cry! There are a few things that you can try to stop the onions from being you to tears.

One thing is to keep your mouth closed and hold your breath as much as possible. Another thing that works is to slice the onion underwater. Also, you can have a candle burning nearby and that helps, too.

By alex94 — On Nov 11, 2010

I love sweet spanish onions. The only problem I have with them is that they make me cry! Is there anything that I can do to reduce the tears?

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Our Editorial Team, made up of seasoned professionals, prioritizes accuracy and quality in every piece of content. With years of experience in journalism and publishing, we work diligently to deliver reliable and well-researched content to our readers.
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