Braise

Braised Onion Sauce

March 19, 2021
35 Ratings
Photo by Mark Weinberg
Author Notes

It took us 47 emails to figure out what we’d serve. We bounced from side to main to starter and back to main, virtually piling chana masala on top of chard and Gruyère panade on top of broiled mushrooms and mozzarella. Someone had the enlightened idea to address cocktails circa email 25. (Pamplemousses, if you’d like to know.) We had a globally-confused menu yielding enough to feed 20 but destined for only our small group, but it didn't matter: It was a dinner party comprised solely of recipes from Molly Wizenberg’s Orangette. Excess was in order.

But the story arc of our epic thread peaked high and early. Following are emails 11 and 12, edited for clarity:

“YES BRAISED ONION SAUCE”

“BRAISED ONION SAUCE"

The reason why all capital letters was a justified choice is disguised in a very short ingredient list from an almost middle-aged book. This braised onion sauce comes from Beard on Pasta, authored by the same man who expects us to put sieved egg yolks in our shortcakes; who dares us to put 40 cloves of garlic in our chicken; and who requests that we make lovely little tea sandwiches and fill their pillow-y insides with nothing but butter and raw onion.

It’s a member of the same class, this pasta–just strange enough for you to assume it will fail you, and made up of ingredients so run-of-the-mill they border on drab. Excepting the noodles, you’re asked to call on only six ingredients for this recipe. The yellow onions languishing in the dark corner of your pantry? You’ll need those. Madiera? You’ve got a dusty bottle on a high shelf somewhere, right? If you don't have pasta somewhere in your kitchen I can't help you. This is the political science prerequisite of ingredient lists. Are you still awake?

But look a little closer: There’s a borderline obscene amount of butter. And you cook the onions for as long as you can possibly stand it–sautéing slow and low is nothing if not a tantric exercise–and then you cook them a little more, this time soaked in Madiera. What you’ve created is the highest form of caramelized onions known to man. Are you scared of the amount of butter pooling in the pan? Good. Add some more.

Then overturn a skein of hot pasta in there, too, its carryover steam loosening everything up, keeping it limber. Toss, and like a couple in the early throes of infatuation, the onions and the pasta will tangle together: the former disappears into the latter, the latter into the former. You’ll detest them for their unabashed PDA, but only for a minute–they are sweet, they are a little salty, they are drunk on syrupy wine.

Serve this at your next dinner party, like we did, and understand the capital letters, the exclamations, Beard’s well-known–and well-observed–idea that “pasta is not a mannerly food to eat.” If you make this with pappardelle, which you should, portions forklifted from the serving dish will stretch and stretch, much like the endless scarf trick the magician at your third grade party performed two times too many. Some unwilling strands of pasta will walk the plank and land smack on the table. Try to take a bite–half your plate will spiral onto your fork. You will abandon everything your mother taught you.

And you’ll come back to it over and over again, because–despite your manners and those of your guests–this dish tastes worlds deeper than the ingredient list promises it will. And therein lies the genius of James Beard recipes: You scoff and then you love. You scoff and then you are put in your place. You scoff, and then you’ll want to scream this recipe from the rooftops–or into your keyboard, on email 12.

Note: This recipe is lightly adapted from James Beard's "Beard on Pasta." He originally calls for two sticks of butter—which you are welcome to do—but I find (as Molly at Orangette has too) that it works just as well with less. I use pappardelle, but feel free to switch that up. It's only important that you make this dish often. —Kenzi Wilbur

Watch This Recipe
Braised Onion Sauce
  • Prep time 15 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour 15 minutes
  • Serves 4 to 6
Ingredients
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, halved and sliced 1/4-inch thick
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1/4 cup Madeira
  • 3/4 pound hot cooked pasta (I used pappardelle)
  • 1 pinch flaky salt, for serving (if needed)
  • 1 handful grated Parmesan, for serving
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. In a large (12-inch) skillet, warm the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and translucent.
  2. Stir in the sugar and a pinch of salt, and reduce the heat to low. Cook the onions slowly for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Patience is key! When they're done, they should be dark, caramelized, and borderline jammy.
  3. Stir in the Madeira, cook for a few more minutes, and then add the cooked pasta to the pan. Shower on a generous dusting of Parmesan, and using two large spoons, toss the pasta well with the sauce.
  4. Serve with additional grated Parmesan, and flaky salt if necessary.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Scott Citron
    Scott Citron
  • sethchan
    sethchan
  • Dharini
    Dharini
  • tastysweet
    tastysweet
  • hmarty28
    hmarty28

135 Reviews

teukros May 9, 2021
No way I'm adding sugar to onions.

Not. Happening.
 
Glenn G. March 19, 2021
This has become my wife’s new favorite
 
wwenzel January 11, 2021
Wonderful recipe. Great with bucatini as well. A suggestion for all those wondering how to get this sauce to "stick" to your pasta: reserve your pasta water and use it. You don't need a lot of it for this recipe (it's not cacio e pepe), but a little bit of that starchy water will make a wonderful sauce that'll make it impossible for your onions NOT to stick to your pasta.
 
Alyena November 8, 2020
Made this today and it was marvelous. Couple of suggestions - omit the sugar, use regular yellow onions, not sweet ones, and be patient - don't stir too much. The result is a taste of onion heaven. I used gemelli noodles cooked just al-dente so the dish would have a variance in texture, and when serving I threw in a generous teaspoon of Nadiya Hussein's chili spice paste that I had just made. The spicy-ness of the chili offset the rich onions very nicely. I also threw some roasted aparagus on top. It's definitely a dish to make on a Sunday afternoon, and well worth it.
 
gerald October 10, 2020
DELICIOUS! So simple but the complexity of letting the onions transform into something greater in terms of richness and taste just works so well. Yes you must love someone to make this dish, as it took me about an hour and 20 minutes using box pasta at that. But we'll worth it. Subbed balsamic vinegar as I don't even know what madeira is, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and a generous shaving of parmesan. Great comfort meal that hit all the right notes
 
Brenda August 30, 2020
I’m excited! I just made this dish and it was fabulous. I had a lot of onions to use and saw this. It seems so simple I thought I must be missing something. I didn’t have fresh pasta, but had to do some shopping anyway. They didn’t have plain fresh pasta, but did have tortellini so got that. I served it with roasted carrots.
Like others, I turned the heat up some after an hour. It never really browned. I think I should have let it brown at the beginning. Excellent!!
 
Dianne J. August 19, 2020
Very delicious, but use less than a teaspoon of sugar unless you want this very sweet. Also, 8 tablespoons of butter would be plenty. Raise the temperature a bit to speed the onions.
 
slotzky July 15, 2020
I made this recipe tonight and it was AWESOME. Don’t add anything until you’ve made it to spec and tasted it. Then you can decide whether to doctor it up.
 
Judi L. July 15, 2020
agreed!
 
Scott C. June 2, 2020
As a huge fan of onions, I dove head-first into this recipe last night. At the time I was making it I worried that this might be too rich, but based on so many positive reviews here I pushed ahead, even adding fried bacon and frozen peas. When all was done I felt like a dope. Instead of allowing the subtle beauty of the pasta and the savory flavors of an onion to shine through, I ended up with the sweetest, sugariest, richest, and mostly inedible pasta I've ever eaten. A gigantic waste of all the wonderful ingredients and a crushing food failure. Can't wait to toss out the refrigerated leftovers and flag this recipe as one to avoid.
 
Scott C. June 2, 2020
As a huge fan of onions, I dove head-first into this recipe last night. At the time I was making it I worried that this might be too rich, but based on so many positive reviews here I pushed ahead, even adding fried bacon and frozen peas. When all was done I felt like a dope. Instead of allowing the subtle beauty of the pasta and the savory flavors of an onion to shine through, I ended up with the sweetest, sugariest, richest, and mostly inedible pasta I've ever eaten. A gigantic waste of all the wonderful ingredients and a crushing food failure. Can't wait to toss out the refrigerated leftovers and flag this recipe as one to avoid.
 
sethchan April 22, 2020
When it says 3/4 pound of pasta, is that dry or cooked?
 
slotzky July 15, 2020
I went dry and it turned out good.
 
lschrader60 March 14, 2020
Made this tonight and it was absolutely delicious. My onions were ready in just over an hour. The parmesan and flaky salt finish the dish perfectly. Will definitely be making this again.
 
Dharini January 5, 2020
Has anyone tried blending the onions into a smooth sauce? I'm curious to see if the flavors hold up.
 
tastysweet December 23, 2019
Made this and it was awesome. However, we did have to raise the heat a bit, otherwise we wouldn’t have eaten any time soon.
We had the left overs next day. Even better. I added to the recipe, sweet peas and cooked bacon.
Next time less butter. This is a keeper. But would make one day and serve the next.
 
tastysweet December 21, 2019
What could I use in lieu of Medeira wine? I have Marsala in house and Port. Will these work?
 
Tina M. December 21, 2019
I used port but added a bit of water to lower the intensity. Came out fine.
 
LULULAND December 21, 2019
I used cream sherry, but I feel that dry sherry or Marsala would work fine.
 
tastysweet December 21, 2019
Thanks Tina
 
tastysweet December 21, 2019
Thank you LULULAND
 
tastysweet December 23, 2019
I used 1/2 port and 1/2 dry sherry.
 
tastysweet December 24, 2019
Tina, I ended up using 1/2 port and 1/2 dry sherry. Worked fine. Added about a teas. of water.
 
hmarty28 December 18, 2019
I really liked this recipe! It was very comforting for the early darkness that is wintertime, and my roommate was blown away. Though the onions took about 2 hours to get jammy, it wasn't as if I had to be on top of them every minute. I spent my time watching Mindhunter and drinking wine, as you do. Definitely is something I would make again, though I wonder if there is anything acidic/citrusy that would help cut through the richness a bit. Though I could also stop adding double the cheese to the recipe too, but who wants to do that!? Any suggestions?
 
Jeff B. April 17, 2020
Orange balsamic vinegar instead of Madeira ...deelissh
 
slotzky July 15, 2020
I’m gonna add anchovies next time!
 
Cindy December 17, 2019
This was wonderful! The time it takes to braise the onions was worth it and the dish is something I'm going to add to my regulars...for those I love. :) I had to use some substitutions...Country Crock Plant butter for the butter, Sweet Vermouth for the Madeira and rigatoni for the homemade pasta. Also, I cooked and crumbled 2 rashers of bacon on top because, you know, bacon. Even with my subs, I think the integrity of the recipe holds true. What a treat!
 
Angela December 16, 2019
I grew up eating Onion Sauce, a family specialty from my Dad's [Sicilian] side. The onions were braised with a cut of beef that would be served as the second course. I'd never heard of it outside of my family until I saw Nick Stellino prepare something he called agglassatu, loosely translated as a Sicilian-style pot roast. The flavor is something that will never leave my memory! If you're going to cook any variation of this, be prepared for the fact that your home will carry the unmistakeable aroma for days. I've been known to take an electric fry pan onto my screened porch and do the braise out in the open air!
 
Tracy K. December 15, 2019
Throw in a tin of oil-packed tuna, rough chopped oil-cured or kalamata olives and lemon zest and you have the stuff of dreams!
 
Nancy E. December 15, 2019
Why can't the onions be cooked in a good olive oil instead of butter for this recipe? I've slowly cooked thinly sliced onions for other recipes and they're very delicious.
Thanks.
 
Barbara L. December 15, 2019
I make my French onion soup with half butter half olive oil. Works and tastes delicious!
 
sethchan December 15, 2019
They could be. And they might well be delicious! But the flavor would be different. You could use something other than Madiera, too. And that might be delicious, too. But the flavor would be different.
 
slotzky July 15, 2020
Oh, I usually do this with olive oil beef bouillon, but the butter and wine was a nice change. Personally, I don’t think either version “needs” the added sugar.