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An Unexpected, Ultra-Caramelized Take on Tarte Tatin

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I love the middle of the winter (really). The holidays have passed; everything has slowed down; my inbox is the cleanest it will be all year; my Pinterest boards are full of new ideas; I’m spending lots of time in the kitchen. With my workload lightened, I find myself trying to live more purposely, including adopting a new routine of cooking at home—one that involves planning ahead. I’m a victim of taking the easy route when I get busy. I cook, but I do it flying by the seat of my pants. I often spend way more time in the grocery store and kitchen than I’d intended to (because I’m trying to figure out what’s what), and I opt for take-out the more burnt out I get.

But my new habits have resulted in new delights: homemade condiments to add exciting flavors to simple dishes, as well as flavorful homemade stocks and broths made from accumulated scraps from the week. I’ve also found myself baking a lot, though for dinner much more than for dessert. Enter the onion tarte tatin—a dish simple enough to be an unplanned weeknight dinner, but one that can also be elevated to weekend dinner party heights. But more importantly, it is just as easy as it is beautiful and delectable.

You don't even have to spend the time chopping onions all tiny.
You don't even have to spend the time chopping onions all tiny. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Here’s what you need to know:

Best Choice for Skillet

I’ve had varying levels of tatin success in a variety of skillets. But for savory tarte tatin, I really stand by cast iron. The heat retention makes for maximum levels of caramelization for the onions, and I’ve never had an issue with it sticking inside the pan. Make sure you’re using a well-seasoned pan for best results. I prefer to make this in a 12-inch skillet for maximum onion coverage, and to make more servings, but the recipe can easily be lessened or tweaked slightly if you have a smaller skillet (just use fewer onions and make your puff pastry round smaller).

Pre-Cook the Onions

Giving the onions a chance to cook ahead ensures maximum tenderness and caramelization later. Plus, it gives you a chance to add some additional flavorings, even liquid, because they’ll have a chance to reduce during the overall cooking time (more on that below). I start with butter, naturally, and place small halved onions rounded side down. Try to pack them pretty tightly, and remember they will eventually shrink. I cook them like this over medium heat, undisturbed, until the rounded sides begin to soften and brown, 10-15 minutes. Season them with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

These onions won't brown themselves.
These onions won't brown themselves. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Now, Add Some Flavor

If you want to add depth of flavor to your tarte tatin, do so after the period of undisturbed stovetop cook time. I like to add a 1/4 cup sherry, 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar, and some fresh thyme and rosemary sprigs. I let it come to a simmer, then reduce it slightly (1-2 minutes). Then, I transfer the whole pan to the oven and let the onions continue to soften and cook for about 20 minutes (at 400° F).

Pastry Time

While the onions cook, prep your pastry round. You’ll need one sheet of puff pastry (about 8-10 ounces). Lately, I’ve been making a lot of homemade puff pastry. I roll it into sheets and keep them wrapped in my freezer like the store bought stuff (the flavor is lovely, since I can use top-notch butter). You can get my easy puff pastry recipe here, or the full standard recipe in my new book. Or, you can save the trouble and use store-bought stuff (for the record, Dufour is my favorite brand).

The Cheater's Pain-Free Puff Pastry

The Cheater's Pain-Free Puff Pastry by Erin McDowell

Inside the Stunning, User-Friendly Cookbook of the Most Fearless Baker We Know

Inside the Stunning, User-Friendly Cookbook of the Most F... by Erin McDowell


Roll out the puff pastry on a lightly floured surface to flatten it. Cut a circle the size of the interior of your skillet. While it’s not strictly required to make vents in the pastry, I like to prick it a few times with a fork to help steam escape and for the pastry to rise evenly. Keep your pastry round chilled until just before you’re ready to use it.

Put a blanket on it.
Put a blanket on it. Photo by Bobbi Lin


When the onions are tender, use a fork or tongs to push them tighter together. Carefully drape the pastry over the onions, gently tucking the edges down to encase the onions. No need to be precious or perfect—it’s meant to be rustic! Return the pan to the oven and bake for 20-25 minutes more, still at 400°F.

Be careful, it's hot! Let it cool before inverting.
Be careful, it's hot! Let it cool before inverting. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Unmolding and Serving

When the puff pastry is very puffed and golden brown, remove the skillet from the oven. Let it sit at room temperature for 5 minutes, then invert it onto a cutting board. Remove the sprigs of herbs and let the tarte cool for 5 minutes more before slicing and serving.

Cheese, please.
Cheese, please. Photo by Bobbi Lin

For a non-traditional and extra salty touch, I like to grate parmesan cheese generously over the onions just before serving.

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Onion Tarte Tatin

0fecd8f8 6ef1 4649 9f57 83bf4668f3d0  3572 Erin McDowell
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Makes one 12-inch tarte tatin
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 5-7 small onions, peeled, stem end left in tact, and cut in half
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 cup sherry
  • 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
  • 2 sprigs rosemary
  • 4 sprigs thyme
  • one 8-10 ounce sheet puff pastry, thawed if frozen
  • parmesan cheese (optional, for garnishing)
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Tags: onion, tarte tatin