Like other onions, pearls are technically edible either raw or cooked. Yet this sweet, small onion variety is rarely eaten fresh. Instead, cooks reserve pearls for creamed vegetable dishes or for pickling. From a flavor standpoint, there is no culinary reason not to eat the mild onions in their raw form. For practical reasons, however, you may consider other varieties superior to pearl onions when you need to serve the vegetable without cooking it.
By custom, pearl onions are rarely eaten raw. Instead, they show up as creamed side dishes at holiday feasts or to accompany an elaborate Sunday dinner. Because peeled pearl onions are readily available in the freezer section, using them as a side dish doesn't involve much labor. When used in stews instead of chopped onions, you'll only need to peel a few to make an impact. In small batches, freshly peeled pearls can be pickled to garnish cocktails or to add to an antipasto platter.
The reason pearl onions aren't more widely used raw probably comes down to how labor-intensive peeling them is, especially when you need more than a handful. This is especially true if you're determined not to heat pearl onions in any way, because the skins slip off much more quickly after half a minute in boiling water. In addition, pearl onions just don't "sit right" on burger patties. They lack the perfect diameter and flatness possessed by the larger sliced onions traditionally chosen as burger toppings.
If you have the choice, you'll probably find larger sweet onions easier to work with than pearl onions. Fresh red onions add color to pasta and potato salads, although some people find them too sharp-tasting when raw. Milder choices include Bermuda and Vidalia onions. Other contenders include sweet imperial, Walla Walla and Maui types. To make any onions sweeter if you're serving them uncooked, soak them in ice water for about 20 minutes.
Casting Your Pearls
When pearl onions are your best option -- either due to availability or because their doll-like size appeals to you -- make the most of them. As a fresh ingredient, a whole pearl onion may pack too much pungency in one bite -- halve or quarter each one before serving. The sectioned pearls will add interest and crunch to a green salad or to an antipasto tray. Or scatter fresh pearl onion sections over green beans, potatoes and other cooked vegetables. Stacked on bamboo skewers, whole pearl onions can also be used as decorative touches for the crudité platter.