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How to Achieve Perfectly Caramelized Onions

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Deeply caramelized onions take little more than time -- and a little patience. 

Cooking can often seem like the most wonderful mix of science and magic. Soft, pillowy cakes arise from the runniest of batter, while unruly vegetables cook down into tame, tender versions of their former selves. The caramelization of onions is decidedly scientific -- involving glucose, cell structures, and the beloved Maillard reaction -- but the results are nearly magical. 

Let's get started. You'll first need to choose your onions: yellow is recommended, as it contains a high amount of pungent lachrymators (the compounds that make you cry), which produce a mellow, yet complex end product.  

You can use as many or as few onions as you'd like, keeping the size of your pan in mind. Of course, remember that your onions will cook down quite a bit (they're mostly water, after all), and that they're a delicious addition to almost anything. 

You'll want to cut your onions in half, peel them, and then remove the root and top ends. Lay the halves down, and make thin slices, either across the bulb to form half rings, or vertically from root to stem. Due to the cell structure, slicing across will yield an end product with a bit more texture than the jam-like result of slicing vertically. Next, get ready for the two stages of caramelized onions. 


Grab a wide, thick-bottomed stainless steel or cast iron pan, and add enough oil or butter to coat the bottom -- about 1 teaspoon per onion. Heat the oil or butter over medium-low heat, and throw in your onion slices. The onions will begin to 'sweat' and soften as water exits the cells. Stir occasionally, and after about 10 minutes, or when the onions are soft and most of the moisture is gone, add a pinch of salt.

At this point, you may need to reduce the heat to keep the onions from burning. The onions will begin to take on color as the sugars oxidize, indicating that caramelization has begun. Let them continue to cook for 30 minutes to one hour, stirring often enough that they don't burn, but not so much that they won't brown.  

When the onions are uniformly a deep, rich brown, the process is complete! Some people elect to deglaze the pan at this point with a little balsamic vinegar or wine to add extra flavor, however it's not necessary. Now that you know how easy it is to make this multi-tasking ingredient, prepare it in bulk, and add to salads, soup, sandwiches and pizza -- in short, everything you can think of. 

How do you use caramelized onions? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: Kitchen confidence, caramelized onions, how-to & diy

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Comments (13)


12 months ago radovanovic.rade

How it is kept in restaurant conditions and for how long? Thanks a lot!


12 months ago jackie

Just eat them by the spoonful or spread on a good cracker.


about 1 year ago Julia Ward

Today is "Cook the Fridge" day at our house: which means the caramelized onions are joining roasted butternut squash, bacon and beer in a risotto -- veggie stock from the balance of our crisper drawer currently simmering….


over 1 year ago Stacy

I love all things caramelized onion. I see that yellow onions are recommended... but as a girl still scarred from a week long "onion breath" episode, I was wondering if anybody knows which onions to avoid using? (Seriously! It was quite the debacle.)

Thanks in advance if anybody can answer this question!


about 2 years ago Deidre Groenewald

One of the readers comments that she freezes the onions when she prepares them in bulk. Any other suggestions? And how long do they last in the fridge?


about 2 years ago Phoenix Helix

I love caramelized onions, and I love that you told the truth about how long it takes! This article makes me laugh because it's so often true in recipes:


about 2 years ago chocbird09

I thought I'd share this: https://www.stellaculinary...

Please note, before someone starts trying to shoot me over the Internet that these can't taste like onions done traditionally, Mr. Burton says (in a comment): "I haven't done a blind taste test and I wouldn't go as far as saying that these onions are better then the ones cooked over slow heat for 45-60 minutes. If I were to make a classic French Onion soup, I would most likely caramelize my onions over a long period of time.

My issue with Scocca's article wasn't that he said caramelized onions that are cooked for at least 40 minutes are better; my issue was with him saying "It's never been done" and it is "impossible." "


about 2 years ago laughing

I've done them in a slow cooker - no stirring necessary! It makes the whole house smell amazing, and it's easy to make a huge batch and freeze the extra.


about 2 years ago Fred Rickson

I add a few Tbs of water and a lid for the first 10 min. The steam kills the cells quickly allowing water to escape and beginning the caramelization process sooner....still should take one and a half hours to do it right.


about 2 years ago Nancy Mck

Mix a half cup of caramelized onions with 2 tablespoons of creme fraiche, add a pinch of thyme and toss with some fettucine, and you will have the yummiest thing you ever ate. Not the most attractive thing, but yummy nonetheless.


about 2 years ago Rivka

I recently changed the way I caramelize onions after finding a Thomas Keller tip in Ad Hoc at Home. For Leek Bread Pudding, he has you start the leeks in a dry pan, which essentially reduces the maximum temperature of the pan's surface to 212 degrees (the temperature of steam) as opposed to in the 350-450 neighborhood (smoking point of oil). As a result, the leeks cook more slowly and evenly, even when the heat is medium-high. The technique works wonders for onions as well. Once the onions have softened a bit and become translucent, I add oil and/or butter, and cook as I normally would - but the dry pan speeds up the process and prevents scorching.


about 2 years ago Trena Heinrich

Thanks for the tip!


about 2 years ago Pegeen

Pegeen is a trusted home cook.

That's a very interesting tip. Thanks!