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How to Slice Your Onions for Caramelizing

How to Slice Your Onions for Caramelizing

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Slowly cooked onions undergo a lovely transformation, becoming silky, nutty, and amber brown. Before you caramelize though, you need perfectly-sliced onions.See more: Cooking with Onions
See more: How to Chop an Onion

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Caramelized Onions Common Mistakes—and How to Avoid Them

Caramelized onions are good on pretty much…everything. The only problem? They're surprisingly tricky to make. They take time to slowly brown and caramelize. It's easy to burn them—and it's easy to remove them from the stove before they're actually done. So we talked to senior associate food editor Claire Saffitz in the test kitchen to figure out the common mistakes people make when they try to make this deeply flavored accoutrement.

Thinly sliced onions will burn faster and stick to the bottom of your pan. Aim to slice your onions 1/8" thick—their heft will prevent them from drying out.

You definitely want the flavor of butter in your onions—but butter has the tendency to burn. For insurance, use a combination of butter and oil, which has a higher smoking point. But how much do you use? Depending on the consistency you want your onions, you can use more or less fat. Just cover the bottom of your pan for jammy, soft caramelized onions, or add a little more for more structured, slightly charred caramelized onions. The more fat in the pan, the more the onions will fry rather than soften. (Okay, you can fry them a little.) You can use just oil, or a combination of butter and oil—the choice is yours!

Brown food never looked so good. Photo: Danny Kim

If you pack too many onions into your pan, they'll steam and produce water. Eventually, they will caramelize—but it will take much longer to get them there. In a 12" pan, you'll ideally be able to cook 2 large onions (we like yellow or Spanish onions) without encountering any steaming problems.

You're not sautéing your onions—you're trying to slowly coax flavor out of them. It takes time, probably a solid 45 minutes, for the onions' sugars to caramelize. If your heat is too high, the onions will burn. Heat your pan over medium-low, then add your onions. Keep it on that temp for the whole process. No cheating!

As our boss's tweet reminded us, there's flavor in the bottom of the pan, too. Take full advantage of the brown bits and deglaze with stock, wine, beer, vinegar, or even water—whichever liquid matches the dish you're going to be adding your onions to. Stir to incorporate with the onions, and they'll absorb all that flavorful liquid, making them EVEN BETTER.

We'd rank these a nice medium-doneness. Photo: Alex Lau

Just in case it didn't sink in before: Caramelization takes time. Don't take them off too early—then, you're "blonding" them instead of actually caramelizing them. They should be a rich brown, much reduced from where you started, and very soft but not quite mushy.


How to Caramelize Onions

Caramelizing onions is not hard but it does take some time. They are great to have on hand to add to crostini, pizza, pasta, grilled meats, or to enhance one of your favorite sandwiches. So go ahead and add this to your repertoire!

How to Make Caramelized Onions

First things first. There is no rushing the process of caramelizing onions, so pick an afternoon when you have some time. You’ll need at least 30 minutes of cooking time to properly caramelize onions, but longer if you’re making a big batch. which can take up to an hour to brown nicely. It’s also wise to plan for prep time as well, which is mostly just slicing the onions (see video below for how to properly slice the onions). When I’m investing the time into making caramelized onions, I do like to make a large enough batch and for that I generally use about 5 to 6 large yellow onions. Yellow onions are the most common onion in grocery stores and work perfectly, but you can also use sweet onions (like Walla Walla or Vidalia).

To caramelize onions, you will need a good-sized skillet, a good knife, some parchment paper, scissors, and as I mentioned a good chunk of time.

How Long to Cook Caramelized Onions

I like to use parchment paper cut into a circle, placed over the onions while they cook. This holds in the moisture and prevents the onions from cooking too fast or burning. (See the video below for my trick to cutting a perfect parchment paper circle). Your cooking time will be roughly 30 to 60 minutes in total, depending on a few variables like your heat, the size of your skillet, and the amount of onions you are caramelizing. So start by cooking your onions in the skillet over medium heat while covered with the parchment paper circle.

After about 10 to 15 minutes, you will start to see some browning. At this point, add some salt and stir. Stirring the onions from time to time will make all the difference, so stir, not too often, to evenly brown and caramelize the onions. If the onions are getting too brown, too quickly, just add a little wine, water, or chicken stock to the skillet. You can season the onions with some sugar, salt and pepper, or even a little balsamic vinegar, which is a sweet ingredient itself.

Once your onions have caramelized to perfection, turn off the heat and let them cool. Serve them on crostini with goat cheese or have them on hand to add to a pasta or pizza recipe, or to your favorite sandwich. If you’re not using them right away, store caramelized onions in the fridge in a sealed, airtight container for a week or two.

How to Make Caramelized Onions in a Slow Cooker

Using a slow cooker is good way to make a large batch of caramelized onions. You can use this method to easily cook down 4 to 5 pounds of onions. It is easier than the stovetop method in labor, but it will take you the better part of a day to get the onions fully caramelized. Of course, all that time is unattended, so with a few minutes of prep you can make a bulk batch of caramelized onions with very little work. Simply toss the thinly sliced onions with ½ cup of melted butter or olive oil in a pre-heated slow cooker. Cover and slow cook on the LOW setting for 8 hours. Stir the onions and season them after 8 hours. Then, leave the lid ajar and slow cook on LOW for another 3 to 4 hours. Leaving the lid ajar will help the liquid evaporate, making the onions thicker and darker in color. This will yield about 3½ cups of caramelized onions, which you can freeze for up to three months. It’s a good idea to freeze the onions in smaller containers or zipper sealable plastic bags so that you can add just a little to soups or sauces for a boost of flavor.

Quick Notes:

  • Use yellow onions, about 5 to 6 large onions
  • Slice the onions into long slices
  • Coat the skillet with olive oil or butter
  • Use a parchment circle to hold the moisture and prevent burning
  • Stir the onions from time to time to ensure even browning of the onions
  • If the onions are browning too quickly, simply add a little liquid
  • Season the onions part way through the cooking time with salt and pepper, sugar or balsamic vinegar
  • When the onions are nicely and evenly browned, after about 30 to 60 minutes of cooking time, turn off the heat and allow to cool
  • Add to crostini, pasta, pizza, grilled meats or a sandwich
  • Store in the refrigerator in an airtight container for one to two weeks or freeze for up to three months
  • Make caramelized onions in your slow cooker: toss with butter or oil, slow cook on low for 8 hours, stir, slow cook on low with the lid ajar for another 3 to 4 hours

How to Caramelize Onions

5 things to know before you get started

  1. Any onion can be caramelized. You don&apost have to spend more for sweet onions like Vidalias or Walla Wallas. Inexpensive yellow onions caramelize beautifully.

2. Put down that sugar bowl. Despite what some recipes may tell you, you do not have to add sugar to make caramelized onions. Cooking the onions for a long time brings out the natural sugars in the onions, turning them soft, brown, and super-sweet. It&aposs a complicated science and not entirely understood, but it works. Trust.

3. It takes a lot to make a little. I found that four quarts of sliced raw onion cook down to about 1 quart of caramelized onion. Of course, your yield may vary.

4. Your home will smell like onions. Be warned. That big pile of sliced raw onions will grab you by the nose for a while until it cooks down a bit. Then it starts to smell amazing. In the meantime, open a window, turn on a fan, or use the slow cooker method overnight or while you&aposre not home.

5. Allow lots of time. Slow cooking for 10 hours on LOW gives you golden brown onions with a lot of liquid to drain off. (Save the liquid to flavor soups, stews, rice, and pasta dishes.) You can stop at that point, or leave the liquid in and cook for an additional 4 or 5 hours on LOW with the lid ajar. This cooks off most of the extra liquid and gives you even sweeter, deeper brown onions — almost like onion jam.

The Mindful Palate

There's a big difference between a browned onion and one that is caramelized. Some recipes will tell you to "caramelize the onion over medium (or medium high) heat for 10-15 minutes." If you follow those directions, you are not caramelizing the onion. You are browning it. Brown onions are very good indeed, but they are not awe inspiring or caramelized.

It takes a leisurely caramelizing process to draw the internal sugars out to the surface of the onion. When these natural sugars spend extended time in contact with oil over moderately low heat the onion is coated in a to die for savory-sweet ooey-gooeyness. Caramelizing onions is really just browning sugar, only instead of a cup of granulated sugar, you use onions.

Awe Inspiring Caramelized Onions

3 Onions (your favorite kind: yellow, white, red, or sweet)
2 T olive oil*
Two or three twists of freshly ground sea salt**

Slice stem and roots from the onions and peel. Cut in half from stem to root..Cut long thin slices also from stem to root. No need to over fuss the width of the slices. As you can see in my picture, mine were a variety of widths. Allow the poor dears to rest and recover from their pain while you get the rest of the stuff in order.

Lightly Caramelized Onions
You can stop here or go on until they get really dark brown.
Heat the pan over medium heat. When hot add the oil - the measured amount is approximate as it all depends on your pan size and how many onions you are doing. When oil gets hot it thins a bit and spreads easily over the pan. Add enough oil so the bottom of the pan is coated.

When the oil starts shimmering watch it for a few seconds and marvel at how pretty it is. Then add the onions. Stir to coat with oil. Stir after five minutes. After 10 minutes total cooking time, sprinkle with a little salt - coarse sea salt is awesome here. Then reduce the heat to medium low.

See, they shrink! That used to be two huge onions!
Continue to stir the onions about every 5 minutes or so. Don't hang by the stove. 10 minutes is not too long between stirs. You need the onions to have contact with the pan for the caramelizing to happen. So, go do something. Write in your blog or read a book so you truly do forget about the onions and only stir them every now and then. After about 40 minutes you might need to hang by the stove a bit and stir more often so they don't burn. The deeper brown they are the tastier they will become.

Did I mention that at this point it is absolutely delicious. I mean necessary, for culinary awareness purposes only of course, to taste a slice every now and then. Mindfully monitoring the perfection of the onions is a critical element of the caramelizing process. And, it's why I always cook up plenty of extra.


Use caramelized onions on just about anything!

*On oil: some people prefer to use just butter or half butter and half olive oil. It's a total "to taste" thing. Experiment and choose your fave! they have similar, but not exactly the same smoke points and often mix well together. They do so here because the temperature of cookery is low enough that the smoking point does not enter in. Do not bother please using "light" olive oil. Either the regular or extra virgin only.

**On salt: if you skip salt because you are on a low salt diet, the entire process is at peril! I don't know why this is. I just know that from experience, they caramelize better when give a few twists to the grinder. No doubt this is some of that chemistry stuff.

On freezing: Make plenty - they freeze! Yes, you can freeze dollops of caramelized onions and they will keep nicely for a couple months. (parchment paper, foil sprayed with non-stick spray, in individual muffin cups, or however you want to handle the freezing of portions). They will thaw quickly on medium low heat in a skillet or in the microwave.

On the Refrigerator: If you store them in the refrigerator instead, don't keep them more than a couple days as they lose their power over your taste buds completely.

How to Dehydrate Caramelized Onions

1. Prepare your onions

You can slice, dice or chunk for this process. I prefer dice because these become another version of minced onions for us.

A sliced version or chunked version is fine if you're final outcome is for powder.

Since I don't have a food processor, I love this Fullstar vegetable chopper for getting things done quickly.

TIP: Don't toss the skins - toss them in the freezer to add to your next batch of vegetable broth or create a yummy onion broth.

ONION BROTH: I throw it in with some more onions and onion skins, and lots of water, and let it go overnight to create a dark, rich, onion broth. Use to cook grains with, to put into other soups, to use as a means of liquid when water is called for in cooking. It's good stuff!

2. Place onions into your slow cooker

You can add about ¼ Cup of water to your slow cooker to help the onions from sticking to the bottom and browning too quickly. But you'll find that the onions release a lot of water, so stirring often, in the beginning, can help, too.

TIP: At this point, you may want to add about ¼ C of balsamic vinegar to give this an even deeper flavor. I find that it makes it too sweet to me, and we prefer without it.

TIP: You can do this on your stovetop in a stockpot or large skillet. Adjust your time.

3. Cook on low for 4-6 hrs.

I prefer to cook on low to really get it going , then on warm throughout the day, stirring every hour or so.

Your onions are going to release a lot of water throughout this process.

But remember, every slow cooker is different, so keep them going as long as you'd like to get the color you'd like.

4. Drain Onions

But don't discard that liquid -- it's the perfect base for making your own onion broth!

I find it's also helpful to manually push those onions to help them drain as well.

5. Place onions on your dehydrator trays

Don't have a dehydrator or are looking to upgrade? I put together a free handy resource to know what to look for to fit your needs and great machines in all budget ranges.

6. Dry at 125F / 52C for 8-10 hours

Remember, use drying times as a guide. Your times may vary depending on how well you drained your onions, your machine, your home's humidity, etc.

When are Dehydrated Caramelized Onions Done?

You may find that while warm, your onions are a bit sticky. The natural sugars are warmed and stick. But pull a few pieces up anyway, let them cool, and test to see if they are crunchy.

What if I Don't Have a Slow Cooker?

  • Skillet - do this in your skillet without oils or fats with low heat. - Use Martha Stewart's method, though I will suggest leaving out the fat and salt.
  • Roaster - if you have a roaster, they work just as well there, too!
  • You can even do this in your oven! Just be mindful to slow roast them and check that they don't burn.

Next Step - Conditioning

Be sure to always condition dehydrated food before putting it away for storage.

How to Store Dried Caramelized Onions

Store dehydrated caramelized onions in an airtight container. You can vacuum seal it for the best results.

Your onions will last at least a year if they are properly dried, conditioned, and stored. You'll likely get much longer than that, though.

How to Use Minced Caramelized Onions

  • Make a shelf-stable mirepoix or mirepoix powder.
  • Use to top ramen and other soups or stews as a crunchy topping for texture.
  • Add to burgers for a crunchy topping to replace raw onion
  • Use as an alternative to commercially fried onions for your favorite green bean casserole.
  • Use as you would normal minced onions in recipes.

How To Caramelize Onions

Do you ever find yourself craving the sweet, savory unctuousness of caramelized onions? I do. Part of it is their versatility &mdash I use them in everything from breakfast frittatas to casseroles or as the crowning glory on a dish of haricots vert. But if I&rsquom honest, it&rsquos the flavor &mdash that slightly honeyed jamminess in every spoonful that makes me want more and if you&rsquove never made them before, here&rsquos a simple guide on How To Caramelize Onions.

First, you&rsquoll need some onions (I used 5-pounds for this batch). Standard yellow onions are best. Save your vidalias, white onions and red for your burgers or pico de gallo.

Slice the onions into quarter-inch rounds.

Heat a large heavy bottomed pot with a lid (I prefer a dutch oven) over medium heat with a little olive oil and add the onions. Toss the onions in the oil to coat and cook for about five minutes. You don&rsquot want to brown the onions, so adjust your heat if it seems too hot. Sprinkle with a little salt, cover tightly and slowly sweat the onions.

Witness the metamorphosis. It&rsquos nothing short of amazing. This process isn&rsquot difficult or labor intensive &ndash you just have to be on hand for stirring the veg and monitoring the pot for hot spots &mdash adjusting the heat when necessary.

Now, I&rsquove seen recipes for this with a &ldquoset it and forget it&rdquo mantra. &ldquoSlow-cooker&rdquo caramelized onions and &ldquocooked in the oven&rdquo options, but I have doubts about the level of real caramelizing that goes on. I mean, sure &mdash they&rsquoll soften and reduce down. They&rsquoll even give up their liquid.

But, in my humble opinion, to achieve the Maillard reaction that transforms these eye-stinging rings into the golden hued, barely held together, strands of mild sweetness that I&rsquom looking for, requires two things. A sturdy dutch oven and patience.

You&rsquore efforts will be rewarded with this satisfying, ready-for-anything condiment.

They are great on top of a juicy burger or tossed with blanched green beans as a special side dish. Caramelized onions are delicious with a roast chicken and they&rsquore mandatory for salisbury steak!

To save yourself some time at the last minute, make a large batch of onions and then freeze them in 1/4 or 1/2 cup containers, that way, you&rsquove always got them on hand when the mood strikes.

How to caramelize onions

Few vegetables can turn a blah tasting dish into a master piece as well as onions that have been beautifully browned on the stove top. Follow these tips for perfect caramelized onions that you can use in so many ways.

Don&rsquot Slice Too Thinly

To get the right thickness when you caramelize onions, go for a medium thickness slice. If you slice the onions too thinly, they will stick to the bottom of your pan and burn very easily. Thicker slices are also plumper when cooked and more attractive when used as garnishes for other foods. I try to slice mine about 1/8&Prime or just a bit thicker for this process. You can also chop them into chunks and they will caramelize, as well.

Don&rsquot rush the process!

If you dump the onions in a pan and turn the heat up high, they will burn every. single. time. You&rsquoll end up with a batch of blackened onions that can only be used in the trash bin. To get that candy sweet, brown finish means that you will have to take some time to prepare them. The onions will start to soften up in about 10 minutes.

Don&rsquot Crowd the Pan

One of the most important tips in helping you to caramelize onions perfectly is to use the biggest pan you have and don&rsquot crowd it. Yes, you will cook them faster if you don&rsquot have to cook the onions in batches but instead of giving you the lovely caramelized taste and color, the onions will end up steaming if you put too many in the pan and that is not what you want. Use a big pan, spread them out and cook them in batches until they are done.

This tip about about not crowding the pan is not just for onions. Caramelized mushrooms have the same rule.

Using Caramelized onions

Okay, you&rsquove got a whole pot of beautifully sweet and browned caramelized onions. What do you do with them now? There are lots of ways to use them in fast recipes and main course dishes. Check out these 10 ideas.

  • Make a luscious caramelized onion crab dip
  • Try them in your favorite grilled cheese sandwiches.
  • Add them with sausages to make a delicious Drunken Noodle Casserole
  • Caramelized onions are perfect for burgers
  • Use them on pizzas for a new taste sensation.
  • Add them with bacon for a fabulous Tomato Jam
  • Take your Hummus recipe up a notch by adding caramelized onions and paprika to it.
  • Make this great onions and caramelized onion omelette
  • Take your Mexican chori pollo to the next level by adding onions that have been caramelized
  • Use them to make a delicious breakfast casserole]

The options are really endless! Just use your imagination and let these amazing caramelized onions become the star of your next recipe. How do you use caramelized onions?


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