Friday, April 8, 2011

Caramelized Onions

Caramelized onions and browned onions are often used as interchangeable terms, and although they are related, they are not precisely the same thing.  Caramelized onions are cooked significantly longer, until the natural sugars in the onions are, well, caramelized.  Caramel is in essence simply browned sugar, and despite the bite onions have, they are very sweet as well, which means they are full of natural sugars.

Many recipes, especially those which will feature the onions directly, such as fajitas, call for caramelized onions; cooking onions this way breaks down the compounds which give onions their bite, and leaves them rich and sweet tasting.  Properly caramelized onions are sufficient as a side dish all by themselves, or feature well with other sauteed vegetables, like mushrooms, peppers, squashes, tomatoes, and more.

How to Caramelize Onions

What you will need:

  • Onions
  • Oil
  • Butter (optional)
  • Wide flat pan
  • Salt (and optionally a bit of sugar)
The optimal pan for caramelizing onions is one in which you can lay out all (or as many as possible) of the onions in a single layer, so that they all receive equal heat.

  1. Cut the onions as desired, most commonly in long narrow strips.
  2. Warm the pan slightly on med-high heat, then add oil (and butter if desired).  You won't need very much, just enough to coat the onions, about 1-2 tsp per onion.
  3. Once the oil is hot (you can put in a small piece of onion and wait until it starts to sizzle) add the onions carefully, and move them around until they are all coated with the oil.
  4. Spread onions evenly in the pan and allow to cook, stirring every few minutes.
  5. After 10-15 minutes, when the onions are just starting to turn brown at the edges and stick a bit to the pan, they are reaching the point called for as 'browned onions' in recipes.  At this point, add a bit of salt to taste, and optionally just a bit of sugar (about a quarter teaspoon per onion) to help along the caramelization process.  Depending on your stove, you may also want to reduce the heat a bit at this point.
  6. Continue to cook for an additional 15-30 minutes, until the onions are a uniform, well, caramel color.  Stir frequently enough to keep the onions from burning, but not so much as to make them disintegrate or fail to brown; this will vary depending on your stove, cooking implements, type of onion, etc. 

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