Thursday, June 14, 2012

Caramelizing Onions

There's a big difference between a browned onion and one that is caramelized. Some recipes will tell you to "caramelize the onion over medium (or medium high) heat for 10-15 minutes." If you follow those directions, you are not caramelizing the onion. You are browning it. Brown onions are very good indeed, but they are not awe inspiring or caramelized.

It takes a leisurely caramelizing process to draw the internal sugars out to the surface of the onion. When these natural sugars spend extended time in contact with oil over moderately low heat the onion is coated in a to die for savory-sweet ooey-gooeyness. Caramelizing onions is really just browning sugar, only instead of a cup of granulated sugar, you use onions.

Awe Inspiring Caramelized Onions


3 Onions (your favorite kind: yellow, white, red, or sweet)
2 T olive oil*
Two or three twists of freshly ground sea salt**

Time to cook:

45-60 minutes or until they are your favorite deep shade of brown.


Medium low to medium. It depends on how hot your burners run. You do not want the oil to smoke, so err on the low temp side. 

Here's what you do:

Slice stem and roots from the onions and peel. Cut in half from stem to root..Cut long thin slices also from stem to root. No need to over fuss the width of the slices. As you can see in my picture, mine were a variety of widths. Allow the poor dears to rest and recover from their pain while you get the rest of the stuff in order.

Lightly Caramelized Onions
You can stop here or go on until they get really dark brown.
Heat the pan over medium heat. When hot add the oil - the measured amount is approximate as it all depends on your pan size and how many onions you are doing. When oil gets hot it thins a bit and spreads easily over the pan. Add enough oil so the bottom of the pan is coated.

When the oil starts shimmering watch it for a few seconds and marvel at how pretty it is. Then add the onions. Stir to coat with oil. Stir after five minutes. After 10 minutes total cooking time, sprinkle with a little salt - coarse sea salt is awesome here. Then reduce the heat to medium low.

See, they shrink! That used to be two huge onions!
Continue to stir the onions about every 5 minutes or so. Don't hang by the stove. 10 minutes is not too long between stirs. You need the onions to have contact with the pan for the caramelizing to happen. So, go do something. Write in your blog or read a book so you truly do forget about the onions and only stir them every now and then. After about 40 minutes you might need to hang by the stove a bit and stir more often so they don't burn. The deeper brown they are the tastier they will become.

Did I mention that at this point it is absolutely delicious... I mean necessary, for culinary awareness purposes only of course, to taste a slice every now and then. Mindfully monitoring the perfection of the onions is a critical element of the caramelizing process. And, it's why I always cook up plenty of extra.

Use caramelized onions on just about anything!

*On oil: some people prefer to use just butter or half butter and half olive oil. It's a total "to taste" thing. Experiment and choose your fave! they have similar, but not exactly the same smoke points and often mix well together. They do so here because the temperature of cookery is low enough that the smoking point does not enter in. Do not bother please using "light" olive oil. Either the regular or extra virgin only.

**On salt:  if you skip salt because you are on a low salt diet, the entire process is at peril! I don't know why this is. I just know that from experience, they caramelize better when give a few twists to the grinder. No doubt this is some of that chemistry stuff.

On freezing: Make plenty - they freeze! Yes, you can freeze dollops of caramelized onions and they will keep nicely for a couple months. (parchment paper, foil sprayed with non-stick spray, in individual muffin cups, or however you want to handle the freezing of portions). They will thaw quickly on medium low heat in a skillet or in the microwave.

On the Refrigerator: If you store them in the refrigerator instead, don't keep them more than a couple days as they lose their power over your taste buds completely.

Enjoy mindfully while they are cooking and afterwards at dinner.


  1. Wow, sounds great - will be making these when I get home this afternoon after a quick trip to the green-grocer stand

  2. I have used about 1/8th teaspoon of sugar when they are about half cooked. It works great.

  3. do you just do that on yellow onions or sweet onions too?