Like bacon, everything is better with caramelized onions
Soft, sweet and full of umami, slowly caramelized onions make everything better. Stuff them in sandwiches, add them to pizza, scramble them with eggs, use them as a garnish to a grilled steak or piece of chicken, add to a salad, as a topping to bruschetta, make a delicious onion dip, or use to make a classic French onion soup. You just can't go wrong with caramelized onions.
Caramelized onions take time and can't be rushed
Let's cut to the chase. Caramelized onions take about 40 to 60 minutes. Cook them low and slow and you will be rewarded with a savory treat. Rush them and you may wind up with inedible burnt bits. Here are my tips for making caramelized onions:
Type of onion
You can caramelize any type of onion, but for the effort, I think Spanish, brown or yellow onions work best. Caramelized red onions do not have a very pleasing color, and sweet onions like Maui or Vidalia are significantly more expensive, but don't achieve better results. Oddly enough, sweet onions have a lower sugar content so they don't caramelize as well as Spanish, brown and yellow onions.
How to cut the onions
The thinner the onions the more care you need when you cook them because thinner onions are more easily burnt. Somewhere between 1/8" and 1/4" slices works for me.
I personally like to cut the onions in full circles, as I like the endless loop that results when the onion is cooked. I particularly like this cut when I am making French onion soup or pasta as it is easier to snag the onion loops with your spoon.
Some people don't like the loops and cut the onion in half and then in slices to get half moon slices.
Still others cut stem to stern slices. The choice is yours.
Cast iron, stainless steel or a Dutch oven all work well. A non-stick pan can be used, but is not preferred because you don't get the little stuck bits on the pan that add a lot of flavor when you deglaze. On the plus side, you don't have to watch a non-stick pan quite as closely. I really like to use my Le Creuset Dutch oven for caramelizing onions. The heavy bottom distributes the heat evenly, which helps keep them from burning.
Le Creuset pans are expensive, but you only need to invest once because they will last you a lifetime.
But if the Le Creuset price tag is not in your budget a good old cast iron skillet will also work beautifully for a fraction of the price.
The bigger the pan the better because you don't want to overcrowd and steam your onions. Steaming will not result in deep-flavored, caramelized onions. It took me a while to learn this. For a long time I could not figure out why one batch of onions turned out better than others. Eventually I figured out the problem was overcrowding and since then I turn out better, more consistent caramelized onions. My Le Creuset is 12" across and I find this is the perfect size for three medium-sized onions.
You can use olive oil, butter or a mixture. Olive oil is easier to work with because it doesn't burn like butter, but you might want to add a tad of butter for flavor. I like to use half and half. You may need to add a bit more fat during the cooking process if your pan becomes too dry.
Low and slow is the rule of thumb. Heat the pan over a medium flame. Add your fat and heat until it shimmers. Add your onions and a pinch of salt, stir to coat the onions in the fat and turn the heat down a tad. The salt helps pull the water out of the onions, which is the first step towards caramelization. Lower the heat to between medium-low and low.
Some cooks add a pinch of granulated or brown sugar. Generally I don't find it is necessary. As the onions caramelize they sweeten. If you do add sugar, add it about 10 minutes into the cooking process as the onions just start to color.
I stir pretty regularly initially, and then let them be for several minutes at a time.
You can wait until the end to deglaze or deglaze along the way if your onions begin to stick to the pan. A little sticking is OK and in fact is what you want to happen. The French call these stuck bits "fond" and fond is prized because of the flavor it adds to a dish. Deglazing with a splash of liquid helps release the fond from the bottom of the pan. Pour the liquid in and the pan will immediately begin to steam which helps release the fond. Stir the bottom of the pan, scraping up the bits. Deglazing also allows you to impart flavor to the onions. You can use a variety of liquids, including water, broth, wine, beer or vinegars. For the final deglazing, a splash of balsamic vinegar can be very nice. Balsamic vinegar adds both flavor and color to your onions.
Here is how your onions will progress in 10 minute increments
You will start out with a full pan.
After 10 minutes you will see the onions begin to color.
After 20 minutes they will be a little darker, but still pretty plump.
After 30 minutes the color will really begin to show and the volume of your onions will be greatly reduced. Don't stop here. There is more flavor to be had.
After 40 minutes you will have some good color and a bit of fond developing on the bottom of the pan. Go ahead and deglaze now.
Add a splash of wine, water or broth and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the bits on the bottom. You can keep going to get even darker onions or stop here. I sometimes add a spoonful of balsamic vinegar for flavor and color after I deglaze. Go easy on the balsamic vinegar as a little goes a long way.
The big question is how will you use these delicious morsels?
Yield 1 .5 cups
Soft, sweet and full of umami, slowly caramelized onions make everything better. Here is what you need to know to make beautiful caramelized onions every time.
- 3 Spanish, yellow or brown onions, peeled and sliced into 1/8- 1/4" slices
- 2 - 3 T olive oil, butter, or a mixture of olive oil and butter
- A pinch salt
- A pinch sugar (optional)
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup deglazing liquid (water, wine, stock, beer or vinegar)
- 1 - 2 T balsamic vinegar to finish (optional).
- Heat your pan over a medium flame. Add the olive oil and or butter and heat until it shimmers. If you are using butter you will have to take care not to let it burn.
- Add onions to the oil and stir to coat. Add a big pinch of salt and some pepper and stir again. Reduce your heat to medium-low and keep a close eye on the onions stirring every 5 minutes or so. If you want to add a pinch of sugar do so when the onions are just starting to color. If the onions start to stick to the pan add a splash of the deglazing liquid and stir, scraping up any bits that are stuck to the pan. Continue cooking the onions for about 40 minutes to an hour. They will continue to darken going from gold to deep brown as you cook them. Taste along the way.
- When your onions have achieved your desired color and flavor you can splash in a little balsamic vinegar if you wish for a final deglaze.
- Serve immediately or store in the fridge for 1 - 2 weeks or longer in the freezer.