Caramelized Onions

We know, we know. You’re busy. You’re impatient. You’re rushing cuz you’ve got places to go, people to see, babies to kiss. And you’re thinking you can’t possibly afford to spend an hour of your life waiting for onions to caramelize. We think you can. Taste a spoonful of this and then tell us it ain’t worth it.–Renee Schettler Rossi

LC Caramelized Onions On Demand? Not! Note

What do you think of when you think of caramelized onions? Please don’t let it be those barely wilted onions that you tossed in a pan 20 minutes ago and consider done. Just to clarify, those are perfectly fine as sautéed onions, but they’re a pathetic substitute for the complex sweetness of properly caramelized onions, which require something along the lines of 60 or more minutes over a delicate flame. What’s that? You want caramelized onions on demand? Why didn’t you say so sooner? The trick is to caramelize a batch of onions when you’re in the kitchen anyways so that it’s no big whoop to stay close to the stovetop and show the slowly wilting alliums some love by stirring them on occasion. Say, perhaps, a random Tuesday night while you’re making dinner. Or a Sunday morning while you’re flipping flapjacks. Then cram the caramelized onions in a jar or other resealable container, stash them in the fridge, and you’ve got magic waiting to happen. Slather them on a sandwich. Strew them on savory tarts. Toss them with pasta and blue cheese. Or sneak them onto breakfast pizzas. You won’t be sorry.

Caramelized Onions Recipe

  • Quick Glance
  • 25 M
  • 1 H, 25 M
  • Makes about 2 cups

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive or vegetable oil
  • 4 medium or 3 large onions, halved and sliced as thinly as possible
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme (optional)

Directions

  • 1. In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, tossing and stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until softened. Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, for another 50 to 60 minutes, or until the onions are completely soft and caramelized. They will look dark brown and mushy.
  • 2. Remove the skillet from the heat and add the salt, pepper, and thyme, if using, and stir well. Go ahead and use your caramelized onions immediately or stash them in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week.
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Testers Choice

Testers Choice

Low and slow. That's the sorta flame you need when coaxing out the complex sweetness of caramelized onions. Not this 20 minutes business. (I once got into a heated argument with a colleague at a newspaper about what exactly constituted properly caramelized onions. Unsatisfied with our stalemate, I ran to my rolodex of chefs and he ran to his, and the duel was on. Needless to say, no chef in his or her right mind would agree that 20 minutes was sufficient.) This technique and timing nails it.


Comments
Comments
  1. victoria2nyc says:

    This is a wonderful idea and not only will you end up with a jar of culinary magic at the end, your kitchen will smell divine while the onions are cooking. Who doesn’t come into the room while you are sautéing onions and say “Something smells good?” There’s a recipe in Cucina Fresca for red peppers that you cook s-l-o-w-l-y while you are hanging out in the kitchen, and they are a miracle, too.

    • David Leite says:

      victoria2nyc, I’m so glad you think so. I’ve been saying this for years, and do it all the time. I even have two recipes in my cookbook for caramelized onions (light and dark), yet they never caught on. Maybe you’re the tipping point.

  2. Ouida Lampert says:

    These are one of my secret ingredients (the other is roasted garlic), both of which I make in quantity and then freeze in small sizes (1/4 cup for the onions, 2 tablespoons for the roasted garlic). It’s so very easy to pop these flavor bullets into almost any savory dish–straight from the freezer. Oh–there’s another one, too: slow-roasted tomatoes. Ditto the above.

  3. KirbyTails says:

    I always like adding a little bit of brown sugar on mine. Makes them really good on sandwiches.

  4. Susan says:

    I’m so glad you went into detail about this, Renee. I can’t tell you how many recipes I’ve found that call sautéed onions, caramelized onions. I love them both, but there is a difference!

    Speaking of additions, I love a few mission figs quartered and cooked in with the onions the last 10 minutes or so. I got the combination from a pork roast recipe from Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes. It’s been a struggle not to cook onions without the figs since! They are that good!

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      So lovely to hear it, Susan. I completely agree, there’s a time and a place for all manner of cooked onions. Just please don’t mess with my caramelized ones. You’ve got me wobbly in the knees thinking of adding figs (and, dare I suggest, a splash of balsamic) to the onions during the late stages of caramelizing. Lovely. Many thanks for sharing…

  5. Ellen in Providence says:

    And don’t forget about pissaladière, that truly memorable treat from Provence! The best recipe I’ve found for it is in Sarah Leah Chase’s book Pedaling Through Provence.

    • David Leite says:

      Thanks, Ellen, for the heads up about Sarah’s book. In the meantime, for those readers who can’t wait to buy it, we had a great pissaladière on the site.

  6. Rhonda35 says:

    Renee,

    Love the use of the word “ain’t”—I like to sneak that into conversation/writing every now and again, too. I also love “Ouida’s ‘flavor bullets’”, great term. This is a great reminder for me to work on a better-stocked pantry/freezer.

    KirbyTails brings up a question I have: Is it “cheating” to add sugar to the onions while caramelizing? A chef friend and I say, yes, it is cheating…yet, having said that, I’ve been known to cheat (although not with brown sugar, which I’m going to try next time). I add sugar when I’m in a bit of a rush—usually around the 30-minute mark. What do the peeps at LC think about adding sugar?

    • Renee Schettler Rossi says:

      Hey Rhonda, so relieved to know that at least one LC reader is as laid back as I am in terms of language! Many thanks for taking the time to say so. As far as adding sugar, I agree that it is cheating, I guess the bigger question is do we consider this sorta cheating okay? I haven’t done it, though I don’t frown upon it, depending on the final use. After all, the ends justify the means, yes? But I speak only for myself. Curious to hear what others think. I’m also curious to give the sugar trick a twirl!

    • David Leite says:

      Rhonda35, I don’t think it’s cheating, if you believe the onions won’t sweeten to the degree you want. I haven’t done it much (only when I’m in a hurry), but we’re a no judgment zone here….

      • Rhonda35 says:

        Hi David – Oh, I know the crew at LC is cool! I guess I’m wondering if it makes a difference in some way or if there’s some reason a chef would not want to add sugar? Obviously, it could add “too much” sweetness to the onions…maybe it’s one of those things where chefs pride themselves on bringing out the sweet, caramelized flavor without any help – making it a bit of an art?? (I only add sugar when I’m trying to hurry things along, as well.)

        • David Leite says:

          Hi, Rhonda. I think it’s simply a matter of classic technique. Caramelizing onions doesn’t call for sugar, so I think it’s drilled into them. And, of course, with the proper time and cooking, all onions because incredibly sweet.

  7. linda says:

    Don’t forget Barbara Kafka’s recipe from her cookbook Microwave Gourmet.

    • David Leite says:

      Thanks for the reminder about Barbara’s book, linda. Many paths to the same destination, right?

  8. ATNell says:

    Kenji Alt-Lopez has developed a 15-minute caramelized onion (I think there’s even video) that’s 90% as good as sauteing for an 60 minutes. For my part, caramelized onions tastes even better with a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar added at the end of cooking.

    • David Leite says:

      ARNell, it’s interesting that even Kenji admits, “…the realization that as good as the onions are using this method, they still aren’t as good as traditionally cooked onions. I tasted them blind a few times and missed a bit of the sweetness and subtle flavor from old-fashioned caramelized onions.” I don’t think there is any substitute for properly cooked onions. As he says they’re good in a pinch. I do agree that a splash of balsamic vinegar is a lovely addition.

      I’m in Uruguay at the moment and had a terrific caramelized onion–goat-cheese tart. The onions were cooked with red wine, which adds a fantastic flavor.

      Goat Cheese-Caramelized Onion Tart

  9. Beatrix says:

    Where my husband is from India. They make a version of caramelized onions called “birista.” The onions are cooked much the same way but the slight sweetness of the small purple onions used in India gives them an extra zip (in my opinion). Birista is used to top savory dishes from pulau to biryani to roti. If you’ve ever wondered what makes up the rich brown gravy in many Indian mutton & lamb dishes it is usually birista ground with a few spices & a bit of yoghurt, then cooked again with the meat. The north Indian traditional dishes Mutton Do Pyaza (goat with onions twice), Nihari Gosht, & Mutton Belliram are typically made this way. A friend of mine (whom is also an excellent photographer) did a post on her gorgeous blog on the preparation of birista.

    • David Leite says:

      Beatrix, thank you for all that wonderful information–and the link to your friend’s blog. I think it will come in handy for our readers.

  10. linda says:

    Hope you’ll post the recipe for the tart. Sounds wonderful!

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