Some ingredients are transformed by cooking. I don’t just mean items that you don’t normally eat raw, such as eggs or meat. But vegetables too, such as fennel, or fruits that you would normally eat raw, but that taste amazing when grilled.
And so it is with onions. Raw they are sharp; I don’t like them but many folks do. Lightly sautéed they lose that sharp taste but honestly, they’re just tangy – nice but nothing more. Caramelized, humble onions suddenly becomes sweet while retaining a hint of that tangy flavor, almost buttery and definitely more complex.
What does it take to caramelize onions? A bit of time and a couple of onions, with a bit of fat (oil, butter, or heaven forbid, bacon fat), plus a few tablespoons of liquid to scrape up the “good stuff” left on the pan at the end.
Is it a complex process known only to gourmet chefs and folks who spend oodles of time learning complex cooking techniques to show off to friends and family? Nope. It’s simple. Long and slow, like the secret of great barbecue.
Caramelization takes time, so you won’t be able to whip up a bowlful of these onions in a few minutes. But they do refrigerate just fine. So if you’re using them within days (maybe as long as a week), make them in an hour when you have some downtime and reheat them in a microwave or on the stove for use in lots of dishes.
Caramelized onions take your cooking to a whole new level. The steps are simple.
- Slice the onions thinly or chop them into small pieces.
- Using about 1 tablespoon of fat for every medium-large onion (about 8 ounces), toss the onion with the fat and cook it over a low heat in the heaviest pan you own for about 45 minutes, stirring every few minutes. If you are inclined to, set a timer, and do something else nearby. Stirring ensures that the onions don’t burn on the bottom and that all the onion pieces get a chance to touch the bottom of the pan, where the low heat takes them almost to the melt-in-your-mouth stage.
- After the onions are done, take them out of the pan and add a small amount of liquid to the pan to scrape up what is left.
Here are a set of photos that show you how the onions progress from raw to done in 45 minutes.
Sliced onions – I did these with a sharp knife, by halving the onion, then putting a flat side down cutting the half into two pieces and slicing those pieces very carefully. If you saw my No Fuss Potato Casserole recipe recently, you don’t want to know how facile I am with a mandoline – or not. Either way – mandoline or knife – watch your fingers:)
I used olive oil, though butter works well too. My dream is to fry up a bunch of bacon, use the fat for the caramelized onions and crumble the bacon back into the onions. Then schmear the stuff on rye bread and bite into it – savory heaven!
After 15 minutes, the onions become transparent and begin to change color.
With another 15 minutes (after cooking for 30 minutes), they are starting to brown.
And finally, they get golden brown.
Yes, you can cook them longer, but after 45 minutes they are caramelized and the rest is just icing on the cake (or some savory version of that saying) as far as I am concerned.
- 1 pound onions thinly sliced or chopped, 2-3 medium large
- 2 tablespoons fat (oil butter, or a combination - or other fat such as bacon drippings)
- 2 tablespoons water wine, juice or vinegar (I like light vinegar such as apple cider or unseasoned rice wine vinegar but balsamic works too)
Toss the onions in the fat (melted if solid at room temperature.)
Cook in a heavy pan over a low heat for 45 minutes, stirring every couple of minutes.
Remove the onions when done, then add the liquid to the pan. Scrape up the browned bits and liquid and add them into the cooked onions.
Cast iron pans are an excellent choice for caramelizing onions because they retain the heat while minimizing burning. Heavy gauge stainless steel also works fine. Avoid light pans, which may not prevent burning and those with no-stick coating, which inhibit browning and caramelization.
Caramelized onions stand on their own as a pizza topping, in grilled cheese, in sliced meat sandwiches or in a frittata, as well as layered over chicken cutlets or fish filets. They are also amazing in chutney (recipe coming up tomorrow for my apple and caramelized onion version) and in vegetable dishes.
What’s your favorite way to use caramelized onions?