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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: DIY Food, How-To & Diy, Kitchen Confidence