Chef Notes: Caramelized Onions (or heaven in a pan)

Chef Notes: Caramelized Onions (or heaven in a pan)

One of my favorite things in life are caramelized onions. If I see them mentioned on a menu I’m likely to order whatever they’re in or on just to get those onions. But what makes them caramelized and how do you get them that way?  Defined as the oxidation of sugars, caramelization occurs when sugar is exposed to heat thereby releasing the waters and breaking down and coloring the sugar. You can’t get something caramelized until the water is out of the way. Obviously, when you’re making caramel the process begins immediately because sugar is dry. But when you’re caramelizing a fruit or vegetable it’s going to take more time, depending on how much water it contains.  Unfortunately, this is not a process than can be rushed. Trying to caramelize too quickly will result in fried onions, which are still delicious, but not the same thing at all. 

You can caramelize any onion but the sweetest are the Vidalia because of their high sugar content. I use those when they’re in season. And given that they take a little time, if I’m going to bother with them at all I’m going to make a pretty good sized batch. It doesn’t matter how many you’re doing, the method is the same.

Cut your onions however you want. Toss them into a large, hot skillet or even a big dutch oven (cast iron is great for this) with a generous amount of fat and sprinkle with a couple pinches of kosher salt. The kosher salt isn’t just for flavor enhancement, it’s also going to help release the water. Do not cover your pan. The idea is to get rid of the water. Covering will hold in the steam and your onions will cook but won’t caramelize. Stir well and reduce the heat to medium low. You want to still barely hear that sauté sound but you don’t want them to brown on the outside.   Your heat needs to be high enough to render out a lot of their water but low enough to slowly brown the sugars. If you start to see them browning on the outside like you would see if you were frying them, turn them down a notch.  Once you’ve got the temperature right, you don’t have to babysit these suckers but you do want to check on them every once in a while, stir them around a bit, and check on the color. It’s likely to take at least 30 minutes or up to an hour or more if you’ve done a large batch. They’re done when they’re a medium (caramel colored) brown all the way through. The same method can be used for peppers or a combination of the two.

The uses are endless. You can spread them on crusty bread and sprinkle with cheese for a quick and gorgeous appetizer. You can top sandwiches and burgers with them.Stir them into risotto or other rice or pasta dishes. Plop a pile on top of a beet and goat cheese salad. To store them simply refrigerate and use within a week. If you’ve made a big batch and need them to last longer, top them with olive oil so they’re covered by about ½ inch. Scoop out what you need from time to time and re-top with oil so that they stay covered. They’ll last that way in the fridge for about a month.


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  1. Cecile DeSmet Sharp
    November 07, 18:21 Reply

    Love carmelized onions. I think I will do this and make a nice beet salad with goat cheese, honey pecans and a little bit of cilantro sitting on a bed of arigula.

  2. Amanda Digges
    November 07, 19:36 Reply

    Awesome Cecile. Sounds fantastic. Let me know how they turn out.

  3. Ade Fraioli
    December 03, 18:32 Reply

    I’ve been doing them wrong all these years…thinking that because they were
    fried they were caramelized. Thanks for the right way.

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