Onions are a useful ingredient and can play many different roles in your cooking. You can use them raw, pickled, sautéed, and more. One of our favorite ways to cook onions is to caramelize them. Caramelized onions are soft and buttery like sautéed onions, sweet like pickled onions, and have a deep, rich, almost nutty flavor that is all their own. However, they take time and patience to execute. So, how can you make sure your caramelized onions turn out perfectly?
What are Caramelized Onions?
Caramelized onions are cooked with fat until soft and much of the bitterness that comes with raw onions is cooked out. They are rich, sweet, and savory, which makes them perfect additions to many different dishes. There are two key factors that define caramelized onions — texture and flavor. On a chemical level, we can explain how both happen. First, is their soft texture. Onions are mostly water. As you cook the onions, the water begins to evaporate, breaking down the structure of the onions. This is why they begin to soften as you cook them.
As you cook the onion, these large sugar molecules break down into smaller, simpler sugar molecules that our taste buds can more easily identify.
The flavor depends on the breakdown of the structure of the onion, too. Onions have many large sugar molecules. Our taste buds struggle to detect them, which is why onions aren’t very sweet on their own. As you cook the onion, these large sugar molecules break down into smaller, simpler sugar molecules that our taste buds can more easily identify. This is why cooked onions are much sweeter than raw ones.
This breakdown also allows some of the sulfuric compounds found in onions, that make us cry, to be cooked out. This gives the onions less “bite” and makes them a lot more mellow, allowing the other flavors to take center stage.
Altogether, the caramelization process transforms onions into something delicious and new.
The other primary factor is the caramelizing effect, which comes from the breakdown of sugars in the onions. When done correctly, it not only adds a satisfying brown coloration but also the deep savory and bitter notes that we often associate with the candy caramel. Caramelization is effectively the sugar version of the Maillard Reaction, which relies on amino acids and sugar instead of just sugar. Altogether, the caramelization process transforms onions into something delicious and new.
How to Caramelize Onions
Now that we know why caramelized onions happen, we can talk about the how to make it happen. The most important ingredient you can have for great caramelized onions, besides onions and a fat, is patience. It’s a slow process and shouldn’t take less than 15 minutes. If you try to rush this process, it is easy to burn your onions. This creates a totally different outcome than caramelized onions, with a bitter, salty flavor and a crispy texture. This can have its place, but it’s not what we’re looking for today.
To caramelize onions:
- Thinly slice the onions, either into slivers or chopped. The thinness of the onions helps them to cook more evenly.
- Heat a fat, like olive oil or butter, over low-to-medium heat. You need enough to thinly cover the bottom of the pan.
- Once the fat is up to a medium heat, add the onions to the pan and stir to coat them. You can also lightly salt the onions to help draw out moisture.
- Keep the heat low to medium and stir the onions every two to five minutes. After 10 minutes, you should notice the onions browning.
- Continue stirring for another 20 to 50 minutes (total cook time is 30 minutes to an hour) or until the onions look and taste how you want them.
Once the onions are caramelized, you can store them in an airtight container for up to a week. Feel free to adjust heat levels, onion variety, and additional ingredients to change the outcome. If you think the onions are getting a little dry, you can add a teaspoon of water or some butter or oil. We recommend tasting for seasoning throughout the caramelization process for the perfect component to your recipe.
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Caramelized onions can be the perfect addition to many savory foods. Consider adding them to a burger or an omelet to create new layers of flavor. To cut the intensity of spicy proteins, serve caramelized onions to bring out the complex tastes. Caramelized onions can be used to create elegant dinners and elevate your everyday meals!