Kitchen Technique: Caramelizing Onions

Caramelizing onions is something I do almost every day in the kitchen. Whether I’m making soup, stew, or stir fry, there’s a good chance that onions are in it and they’re caramelized. The technique is something I’ve touched upon at least a few times in various recipes for Corduroy Orange, but because it’s something that’s of such widespread use, I think it’s worth devoting one post entirely to it.

Caramelized onions are cooked to golden brown. The process involves toasting the onions’ natural sugars, and it brings out a sweetness that isn’t noticeable in a raw onion. Done correctly, they add a beautiful flavor base to almost any dish.

There are two basic ways to caramelize onions: the short way and the long way. The long way is the method I like to use when I have time to, because I think it yields considerably better results. To follow this method, melt enough butter (or add enough oil) to generously coat the bottom of your hot pan. Then, add the onions, some salt, some pepper, and turn the heat down very low. Cover the pan and let it sit over low heat for 15-20 minutes, or until the onions have released a lot of their liquid. This step is called sweating the onions. Basically, it involves steaming them in their own water. By releasing the water, you’re breaking down the cell structure and making the natural sugars more accessible to be caramelized; plus, the liquid in the bottom of the pan serves as a buffer to help you keep from going beyond caramelized and into burnt (at least at first; once it has evaporated, you’re on your own).

Remove the lid and turn the heat up. The higher you turn it, the more attention you’ll have to pay to the onions during the next step. Somewhere between medium and medium-high, you can do other things nearby whilst keeping an eye and an ear on their progress. As the sizzle starts to get louder, check them for doneness. You’ll probably find that the part touching the pan has been nicely browned, but the other side of the onion pieces still looks limp and transparent. Flip the onions over and let them be until they start sizzling again (this should take less time than the first side did because the pan is already quite hot). As they approach doneness, stir them around the pan and keep them moving so that nothing burns.

The quick method of caramelizing onions take less time, but requires near-constant surveillance to make sure the onions don’t burn. Add enough butter or oil to your hot pan to generously cover the bottom. Add the onions with some salt and pepper. Stir them constantly until they achieve an even, uniform color. It sounds straightforward enough, but because you’ve eliminated the buffer zone of the onioins’ natural juices, the results are not usually as uniform as can be achieved by sweating the onions first; and there is a greater likelihood that the onions become scorched in places.

Also, if you want to give your results another big boost, try to cut your pieces to a uniform size. It’s easier than you might think to do so—check out my tips on cutting an onion. My method will help you peel it more quickly, make fewer knife cuts, and reduce your exposure to airborne onion juices (thereby reducing the numer of tears you shed).

2 Responses to “Kitchen Technique: Caramelizing Onions”

  1. Elaine Says:

    I know this isn’t the same at all, but for a slightly slower, but dead easy, way to add carmelized flavor, I roast my onions. Somewhere around 40 minutes at 425 degrees the onions are cooked through and get nicely carmelized. I keep several of these roasted onions on hand and throw them into sauces, cold/warm veggie salads, omelettes, and fritattas as needed. I’ve also used them as side dishes with sausages and other meat. I love carmelized onions and have found this technique provides me with a lot of the flavor and no burned pans with onion bits I have to try scrape out.

  2. Catherine Says:

    This techniques are very useful every time I cook.

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