Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Champion of Savoury Dishes: Carmelized Onions


Note: this post is part of Real Food Wednesdays.
Do you like caramelized onions? They taste sweet and savoury at the same time. They are very delicious and can be added as pizza toppings; try them over grilled chicken; or anywhere else regular onions would be used. This article will consider two methods for caramelizing onions—fast and slow.

First, we will now consider, what caramelization is, and how it should be handled.

 What is caramelization?

Simply put, caramelization is the browning of sugar. It is a chemical reaction called oxidation, where volatile chemicals are released, causing the signature caramel flavor. This process is used in the kitchens to produce a nutty flavor and a nice, brown color. - SOURCE:

This process is similar but not identical to the Maillard reaction. But as an article puts it:
...only the most pedantic hairsplitter would actually take the trouble to correct you on it. Also simply referred to as "browning."

If you want to learn the exact process of caramelization—a daunting study—then click here. Otherwise, continue your reading here to learn how to caramelize onions the quick way.

Caramelized onions, the faster method

How did I use the faster method? I cut up part of an onion into really small cuts. I buttered a pan, added salt, and fried them. I used the instructions from Wikihow. I used the "basic-sautéed-onion" method.

What happens is you use butter and olive oil to fry the onions on medium-low heat. Then you add the onions, a little salt(close to ¼ teaspoon for a 1½ pounds of onion, chopped), and pepper to boot. In five minutes your onions will soften. At this point you stir in a couple teaspoons of sugar, and cook for 20 more minutes. When browned and soft, your onions are finished. I merely use my eyes to figure out when they were done because that is all that is needed!

This process doesn't take very long, but its taste is shallow in comparison to when you cook the onions more slowly. If you are okay with that, then it doesn't matter. But if you want to develop the flavor more, then you must take your time with the slow cooking method, which we will now consider.

The traditional method to caramelizing onions.

According to a source I've read, the quick 20-mintue method of caramelizing onions is a complete farce. It actually takes longer to caramelize onions—much longer. We're talking about close to an hour, just for the onions. The source for this statement is found here. The author is Tom Scocca. For the record, I don't actually know much about this site, and I don't really endorse it, either. But the information here agrees with another source I found containing instructions on how to caramelize onions the old-fashioned way.

These instructions were found on this site. I also have nothing to do with this site, but it contains information I'm willing to try out. I just attempted at caramelizing onions this way. I started out dry cooking the onions, and adding butter later. But these are the proper instructions for caramelizing onions according to them:

You will need:
  1. 2-4 yellow onions(I used white, but yellow ones are sweeter)
  2. 2 tablespoons butter, olive oil, or a mix
  3. 2 tablespoons white/red wine, vegetable/chicken stock, balsamic vinegar, or water
  4. salt
  • Stainless steel or cast-iron skillet
  • Stiff spatula
Slice the onions thinly and melt the butter on medium heat. Add the onions and stir them gently. After that, cook the onions over a period of time, stirring on rare occasion. Here is a time table I copied from this site:

Around 10 Minutes: Onions will start to soften and turn translucent in spots. They will release a lot of liquid into the pan.

Around 20 Minutes: Onions will be very soft and starting to break down. Some onions will start to show spots of caramelization and you may see some fond starting to build up in the pan. They will also start to smell caramelized. Adjust the heat if the onions seem to be cooking too quickly or you notice any burnt spots.

Around 30 Minutes: Onions should be light blonde in color and starting to become jammy. More fond is starting to build up, but it should still be fairly easy to scrape it up with the evaporating liquid from the onions.

Around 40 Minutes: Onions are golden and starting to smell very caramelized. Taste one — if you like the way they taste, you can stop now! For even deeper caramelized flavor, continue cooking.

Around 50 Minutes and Beyond: Continued cooking will result in darker, richer, even more caramelized onions. Continue checking the onions every 5 to 10 minutes until they reach your desired level of caramelization. The fond may start to build up on the bottom of the pan — let it be unless it looks like it's starting to burn (in which case, deglaze the pan with a little water).

Deglaze the pan and salt the onions by adding, as this page says, ¼ cup of the liquid mentioned above(water,balsamic vinegar, etc.). The ingredients says two tablespoons of this stuff, so go figure. You should use good judgement when this confusion happens. After you deglaze the pan, scrape up the fond(the brown burnt-looking stuff you see on the bottom of pans when you fry things like onions). Stir it back into the onions—it is part of the flavor.

When you finish cooking the onions, either use them or chill them! They chill in the refrigerator or a week, and they freeze for around three months.



Overall, the slow-cooking method produces a deeper taste, but it takes longer than the every-convenient 20-minute method. Caramelization is a trade-off relationship between the quality of the taste, and the time it takes to develop it. For easy reference, if onions are cooked really slowly over medium to low heat, it will develop the strongest taste; but if it is cooked really quickly, it will not be as complex as the former. Slow-cooked onions, or fast-cooked onions? Which do you prefer?

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