There’s no general consensus on the best way to eat a burger. One thing that many aficionados agree on, though, is that onions make the perfect foil for the rich-tasting beef. Here’s my guide on the best onions for burgers.
Best Onions for Burgers
When I’m in the mood for raw onions on my burger, I go for a thinly sliced red or sweet onion. If I want to sauté or grill the onions, I’ll reach for a yellow or white one. Other options include shallots, which make an excellent onion jam; or scallions, which are delicious on a blackened burger.
How To Prepare Onions for Burgers
Should you leave onions raw or cook them? If it’s the latter, which cooking method should you use? And even if they’re raw, is it better to chop the onions or slice them?
Again, there’s no right or wrong answer. Some presentations are more traditional than others, which is what I’m about to discuss. But in the end, it’s a matter of personal taste.
Remember that the cooking method will have an impact on the flavor of the onions as well as the texture. Both will contribute to the overall effect that you’re trying to create, especially once you bring other ingredients into the mix.
For example, sautéed onions will have a sweeter, mellower flavor than raw ones. The cooking process draws out the natural sugars, which tones down the sharpness that we usually associate with the raw product. They’ll also have a lovely soft texture.
Deep-frying is another preparation method you might want to consider. Battered and fried onion rings bring an intriguing texture and delicious flavor to the finished burger. They’re especially good when combined with barbecue sauce and American cheese.
You don’t want to pair too many soft ingredients together. It’s best to add some contrast so that every bite is new and exciting. Pairing sautéed onions with crisp iceberg lettuce, crunchy pickles, and creamy thousand-island dressing will help you attain this goal—but that’s only one example.
The type of onion plays a major role as well. When left raw, most onions are a bit spicy, with a bite reminiscent of garlic. Shallots are on the milder end of the spectrum, while yellow onions are strong enough to make your eyes water when you chop them.
Best Onions for Burgers
“Red” is something of a misnomer, as these onions come in shades of purple. For that reason, some folks call them “purple onions” instead.
I love to use red onions on burgers because they’re delicious raw, which minimizes the prep time. As a bonus, they add a burst of vibrant color, giving the burger instant eye appeal.
Red onions are relatively mild when compared to their yellow cousins, but they don’t have the sweetness we associate with Vidalias or Maui onions. In fact, when you cook them, they lose almost all of their flavor. They are, however, excellent when pickled in a vinegar brine.
- Plum tomatoes
- Romaine lettuce
This is a great and versatile onion, suitable for everything from stews and stir-fries to sandwich toppings. In fact, in some places, they’ll be labeled as “all-purpose” onions.
I like to sauté these when I’m using them as a burger topping. When raw, they’re a bit too sharply flavored, which can overwhelm the meat. If yellow onions are all you have on hand and you’d like to use them raw, slice them as thinly as possible.
Sauté the onions until they caramelize to the color of an old penny. The longer you cook them, the sweeter they’ll taste. If they stick to the bottom of the pan during cooking, add a splash of dry sherry or white wine.
- Vine-ripened tomatoes
- Bell peppers
- Parmesan peppercorn dressing
These are even spicier than yellow onions, with a terrific crunch. They’re common in Mexican cuisine, where they’re often used as a key ingredient in pico de gallo.
Since yellow onions are spicy enough when eaten raw, I would definitely recommend cooking the white ones if you want to put them on a burger. If you use raw white onion, the onion will be all you can taste.
Try using white onions to make batter-fried onion rings. They contain a lot of water, which will allow them to crisp up when fried. The cooking process also mellows out the flavor.
- Barbecue sauce
- American cheese
Vidalia, Maui, Walla Walla—there are numerous sweet onion varieties, each arguably as delicious as the last. Because of their high sugar content, they’re ideal for caramelizing, but they also taste amazing raw.
Try not to use spicy or overly bold ingredients in the burgers when you’ve gotten your hands on a sweet onion. The taste of the onion should come to the forefront. If you do decide to cook them, use them to make a sweet-savory onion jam.
- Mild cheddar
- Boursin sauce
This isn’t the most popular onion to use as a burger topping—it’s usually reserved as a last-minute addition to stir-fries and other Asian cuisine. But when paired with the right ingredients, it’s a stand-out.
Scallions have small white bulbs and long green stalks. Both are edible, but the bulbs have a more pungent flavor. Texture-wise, they’re softer than most other onions, especially on the leafy green end, which resembles an herb more than a vegetable.
It’s best to use scallions raw, slicing the white and green parts and mixing them together. When cooked, they lose the flavor and texture that make them a desirable burger topping in the first place.
Here’s a video tutorial on the best way to mince a scallion.
- Cajun blackening spice
- Blue cheese
- Goat cheese
- Boursin cheese
Mildly sweet and versatile, shallots are one of my favorite ingredients. I don’t often put them on burgers, but if I’m looking to step up my game with a gourmet game-changer, they definitely go on the list.
You’ll want to cook the shallots slowly over low heat to allow them to release their natural sweetness. Be careful not to burn them, or they’ll taste bitter and acrid. Once they have a soft, jammy texture, use them to top your burger with a combination of the ingredients listed below.
- Dijon mustard
- White wine sauce
Are There Any Onions I Shouldn’t Use?
Boiling onions, which are harvested when they’re very small, aren’t suitable as burger toppings. It would be too difficult to prep them, for one thing, and they’re really not designed to top any type of sandwich. They’re best when added to a stew or served on their own as a side dish.
I would also steer clear of leeks. While this tube-shaped onion is delicious braised or grilled (and is a key ingredient in vichyssoise), its best qualities will be overwhelmed by the burger and other toppings. Ditto for ramps, a spring onion that’s too unique and expensive to get lost inside a burger bun.
The next time you’re having doubts about what type of onion to use on your burger, think about what other ingredients you have on hand.
If you want a classic burger with cheese, lettuce, and tomato, a slice of raw red or sweet onion should be just the ticket. For a fancy bistro-style burger, opt for sautéed yellow onions or shallots with boursin cheese and cracked black pepper.