An Ode to Caramelizing Onions (and How To Do It Right)Posted: April 4, 2018
Making caramelized onions is one of the simplest yet most striking acts of kitchen magic there is. Butter and salt are the only ingredients you need besides the onions themselves. The process isn’t complicated, though it does take time—which is the most important element of all. Properly caramelized onions require at least a full hour, if not more, but the investment is so worth it.
For some (like me), the time spent is even a pleasure. At least, it is when I’m in the mood for the task. Isn’t that ever the case?
I always love to eat, and often love to cook, but sometimes balk at the mere idea of the kitchen. Even a job as relatively simple as prepping a pound of Brussels sprouts to roast can make me gnash my teeth and turn to a can of tuna instead. On better days, I’ll chop a bunch of stuff and tend a mix of different pots and pans, but my diced tomatoes will never be uniformly sized, my garlic will nearly always be grated instead of minced with a knife, and I might not bother thawing shrimp before chucking them in boiling water, or even browning meat if it’s going into a sauce (I know). Call it laziness—it definitely is, in part—or more generously, just say I’m not necessarily a purist when it comes to technique. Caramelized onions, however, are an absolute exception; I will not use shortcuts, and if I can’t commit to an hour by the stove, I’ll just eat something else. Browned onions can work if I simply want something to top a burger, but truly, madly, deeply caramelized onions cannot be rushed.
Well, actually, they can, or at least can be hurried along; I simply have a (probably illogical) bone-deep aversion to any fast-track tactics. If you’re not such a stickler, Alton Brown has a microwave method that seems vaguely alarming, even before you get to the commenters attesting that their onions caught fire when attempting this trick. Other sources suggest adding sugar or baking soda to a standard pan to speed up or enhance the caramelization. If you hew to classic low and slow, neither are necessary, but it’s understandable if you don’t always have the patience (or time). Unfortunately, they will almost always need some amount of babysitting, and here we reach the limitations of the Instant Pot; it makes a mushy mess out of them, and they’re only a wan shade of blonde to boot. Conversely, if time’s not an issue but you still need to be elsewhere, slow cooker caramelized onions look promising:
Allegedly, you can use plain old water to speed things up, but I never do. Part of it is just innate stubbornness, but mostly, I love the process of “properly” caramelizing onions—which means something different to everyone who has an opinion about it, of course. And any way you cook them, they’re said to freeze beautifully. We’ve never had any left, and I hadn’t thought about cooking them just to have on hand later, but that might need to change…
My own method (fine-tuned to my personal preferences, middling and finicky electric stove, and other idiosyncratic kitchen equipment) is as follows:
- Peel and slice way more yellow onions than it seems like I’ll need; I usually use at least five small to medium, and prefer to halve them down the meridian, then cut the eastern and western hemispheres into half moons.
- Get out a large, heavy bottomed pan—I own two cast iron skillets, but they’re both smaller than my sturdy off-brand stainless steel sauté pan, so I use that. The thinner aluminum pan in the drawer is inferior, but I’ll break it out as back-up if I need a ton of onions.
- Set the pan(s) over medium-high heat for about a minute, then add a big pat of butter, then a little more butter.
- Heat the fat until the butter melts and is just sizzling, swirl the pan to commingle it with the oil and coat the bottom, then slide in the onions—usually, I’m aghast at how many there are, and worry the pan is so crowded they’ll never cook down, but know from experience that they will, eventually. (If I started with a smaller amount, it probably wouldn’t take so long to caramelize them, but then I’d also have less end product, and I am, sadly, both gluttonous and resistant to change.)
- Sprinkle a generous pinch of salt over the onions and stir them over medium-high heat for several minutes, until they’re translucent and slick and starting to look like they’re on the long, slow road to total collapse. (I stir almost constantly so as not to let them brown at this point, but if a few spots have some color, I don’t sweat it—metaphorically, anyway.)
- Once the onions are all limp and see-through and have released some liquid, I turn the heat down to medium and continue to cook them, stirring fairly often, paying attention to sound and smell as well as slowly developing color, decreasing the heat again whenever it seems prudent. Eventually, it’s turned to the very lowest setting, and I just keep communing with the onions, stirring now and again, for a long, leisurely time. They always look fairly unpromising for quite a while, but gradually, they take on a pale straw color that in turn deepens to yellow and then to gold, and much, much later, become a fully burnished, dark brown mass of pure flavor that looks like it might just about fill up an 8 ounce measuring cup, despite the fact that I’d swear I started out with a quart of onions, at least.
It’s the ultimate in cozy domesticity, which sometimes appeals above all else. But if it sounds tedious, and even frustrating, I get that. (So do recipe writers, which is why they often lie about how long it takes.) That’s also why I don’t usually caramelize onions on work nights. And why I’ve sometimes cooked two pans’ worth at once, so I have a little more to show for my efforts once they’re over. But sometimes I want to just sink into and savor the process itself.
Maybe it’s another form of cooking as meditation (“carameli-zen“?), though I don’t quite think of it that way. It simply has such acute sensory appeal: the initial hard sizzle of the raw onions subsiding to a gentle murmur until you’re in an almost silent kitchen (ideally); the steadily intensifying perfume of the browning sugars (which will linger in the house and on your clothes for at least a full day afterward, but is nice at the time anyway); the easy slide of the worn-satiny wooden spoon (or silicone spoontula, in my case) through the slowly melting onions; the alchemy of watching crisp, firm, white vegetable flesh collapse into sticky, golden-brown shreds; and then of course, the ultimate reward is the deep, richly sweet taste. It’s all enchanting—and better yet, it gives me the opportunity to hunker down in the kitchen and read a back issue of a dearly departed magazine (RIP Gourmet and Lucky Peach), or a food-focused book (Nigel Slater’s Notes From the Larder is a current fave) in between casual but consistent bouts of stirring. Rather than a chore or any sort of drudgery, it’s heaven. To me, anyway. When I’m in the mood for it.
A little (or a lot) of caramelized onions add lavish, sweet savor to pretty much anything, from pizza and tacos to hamburgers and sandwiches in general, but I’ve probably cooked down fifty pounds of alliums over the past several years for the Barefoot Contessa’s pan-fried onion dip alone. I made it once for Christmas Eve and that was it; it became my signature dish, whether I wanted it to or not, and I’m not allowed to go too long without making it for a party, probably for the rest of my life. Luckily, I’m okay with that (and it is delicious). In fact, I settle in and cook the onions even longer than Ina’s recipe calls for (and cook more of them too). Sometimes, say 10 minutes before I want to take them off the heat, I stir in a dash of balsamic vinegar and a squirt of grainy mustard to give the onions even more oomph before cooling them and folding them into the dairy medley, but it’s the extra-long time luxuriating in a pan that really makes them—and the dip itself, and anything else they touch—so special.
I just ensure I have the afternoon free and something good to read, maybe crack a beer and drag a dining chair up to the stove for good measure, and in the end, it feels like a couple hours very well spent.