Buttery Braised Onion Sauce

March 19, 2021
44 Ratings
Photo by Mj Kroeger
  • Prep time 15 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour 15 minutes
  • Serves 4 to 6
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:



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

Test Kitchen Notes

This onion sauce is as simple as it is delicious. The butter does the heavy-lifting here, adding savory depth-of-flavor as it caramelizes and browns alongside the onions, turning it all into a deliciously umami, jammy sauce. If you can't find Madeira, a nice port or sherry vinegar will also work well here. —Food52

What You'll Need
Watch This Recipe
Buttery Braised Onion Sauce
  • 10 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 pounds yellow onions, halved and sliced ¼-inch thick
  • 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
  • 1 pinch kosher salt
  • 1/4 cup Madeira
  • 3/4 pound cooked pasta (I used pappardelle)
  • 1 pinch flaky sea salt, for serving (if desired)
  • 1 handful freshly grated Parmesan, for serving
  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, about 8 to 10 minutes.
  2. Stir in the sugar and kosher salt, then reduce the heat to low. Cook the onions 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 2 to 3 more minutes until the liquid is combined, and then add the cooked pasta to the pan. Shower on a generous dusting of Parmesan. Using two large spoons, toss the pasta with the sauce.
  4. Serve with additional grated Parmesan, and flaky salt if desired.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Smaug
  • Scott Citron
    Scott Citron
  • sethchan
  • Dharini
  • tastysweet

149 Reviews

kdw October 11, 2023
This was delicious! Who knew 1 1/2 onions and 2+hours of random stirring would be this delicious! My friend was afraid he'd miss the meat, but after dinner he said it was really good and it was as satisfying as a meat stew. Note: the Kroger by me, (the highest volume Kroger in the US, btw) recently decided not to carry Madeira wine, I used sweet vermouth and it worked fabulously. Another note: getting that many onions to soft/clear took at least 25 minutes and then getting it to jammy took another 2 hours. I'd make it again tho since it's not a very active 2 hours.
Smaug March 15, 2023
All it needed was a dark and stormy night...
I don't see why yellow onions would be languishing in one's pantry- an everyday item if there ever was one- and no, I don't have a dusty bottle of Madeira somewhere but any number of things would serve as well; why not Amarone, since it's a pasta dish? This would work best with fresh pasta, which you could make using the same wine. Dry your pasta as much as you can before saucing.
Football1 January 22, 2022
We routinely eat a Middle Eastern dish popular in Syria called Mjedrah. Its just brown lentils and rice with a topping of these jammy onions. Its a peasant dish as its super inexpensive and easy to scale to large families and drop in dinner guests. The onions are the star and so I can't wait to try this pasta incarnation of a beloved "ingredient". Right off the bat, I think you can definitely use way less butter and NO sugar. The onions get sweet as a result of the slow cooking. Also do not even know what Madeira is so I'm toying with a splash of "pomegranate vinegar" (dbis Roman) for a tart substitution. Will make this soon and update my review.
Smaug March 13, 2023
Madeira is a fortified wine produced on the Portuguese island of Madeira- actually a class of wines, with a considerable range of sweetness. Your vinegar would put you more in line with standard caramelized onion recipes, which is all this really is (with a ton of butter added); other fortified wines would also work well.
MVMPDX October 20, 2021
I really wanted to like this. It wasn’t bad but it certainly wasn’t worth the time it took. I made this (to the T) with a quick fried pork chop and my boyfriend said, “these buttered noodles taste a little like caramelized onions.”
teukros May 9, 2021
No way I'm adding sugar to onions.

Not. Happening.
Steven W. October 18, 2021
"Even just a tablespoon?" I can hear people saying. I completely agree with you. Buy the right onions!!
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.
frank R. July 30, 2021
is it ok to use olive oil instead of butter?
Smaug March 13, 2023
A lot of food writers tend to characterize overindulgence in butter as an act of courage, bragging about how much they consume. I like butter, but too much is just gross.
tastysweet October 12, 2023
I, too was wondering about using olive oil. Only because this recipe is just waiting for a heart attack!!!
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
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.
Steven W. October 18, 2021
Well, you added the bacon and peas. Perhaps that was where it went south?
Sofie May 10, 2023
Let’s see. Despite knowing that the onions (plus sugar) would be plenty sweet, you added peas. Despite knowing that the 10 tbsp of butter would be plenty rich, you added bacon. Despite putting on a sheepish grin and filing this failure under “silly culinary mistakes best kept to myself”, you blame the recipe and post it twice.

Are people for real? Is this a troll?
Sofie May 10, 2023
Should be “instead of” in the last sentence ffs

Apparently I can’t write when I’m mad
kasia S. December 18, 2023
Clearly you can't follow directions, don't blame the recipe.
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.
Ascender January 13, 2023
3/4 lb is 12 ounces. For 4-6 servings, that is a sensible amount. Given the amounts of butter and onions, 12 oz dry pasta, cooked, makes sense. 12 oz of cooked pasta would be swimming in butter and onions. Proper pasta is lightly dressed with sauce, not swimming in sauce.
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!
Steven W. October 18, 2021
Maybe a squeeze of citrus?