There Are No Shortcuts When It Comes to Caramelized Onions

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Plenty of people may say they can do it quicker and easier, but real caramelized onions still take time and attention.

People love a good cooking hack these days. Any method, ingredient, or piece of equipment that can save a little time or effort is like a godsend since most of us have little time or effort to spare.

My professional cooking background was in fine dining, the province of classically trained chefs who thought shortcuts were cheaters’ crutches that yielded inferior results. So we often did things the hard way, for better or worse. But I came to learn that sometimes the hard way was, in fact, the best way.

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Caramelizing onions is exactly the kind of slow, tedious process that cooks want desperately to hack. It takes the better part of an hour and requires strategic stirring and heat manipulation. But after testing both a “quickie” stovetop caramelization approach and also a slow-cooker method, I still feel the classic technique is best by far. The good news is that, done right, it’s actually easier and less tedious than you might think, as you’ll see.

First, a look at where the hacks go wrong.

The “Quickie” Method

Some years ago, a young cook in our test kitchens told our staff that one of her cooking school instructors endorsed a high-heat, quick-caramelizing method for onions. They’d cook to perfection in less than 15 minutes, she said, and be just as good or better than traditionally caramelized onions.

The idea was to keep the pan over medium-high heat the whole time, sautéing (stirring frequently) until the onions reached the desired brown color. We were skeptical. So we tested the techniques side by side.

The results were obvious before we even tasted them. Just looking at the finished pile of high-heat onions, we saw how unevenly cooked they were. Some pieces were light blond. Others were deep brown. Some unfortunate onion slices were both blond and blackened at the edges.

The texture was just as uneven, with al dente bits mixed in among the more tender onion strands. The conclusion was clear: to brown the onion’s natural sugars evenly, you need to cook them for a long time over low heat.

The Slow Cooker Method

Some cooks find this method fuss-free and practically foolproof. In my own test, I ran into problems that made me doubt the supposed convenience.

Even cooked on the low setting, the onions need occasional stirring to caramelize uniformly. Without stirring, you end up with the same uneven results as in the quickie test.

What’s more, the onion’s liquid content never cooks off properly, so you get what looks like French onion soup. Some cooks just discard the extra liquid (sacrificing the flavor in that liquid), while others advise cooking the browned onions uncovered at the high setting for an hour or so to reduce the juices.

If you could just put your oil and sliced onions in a slow cooker and open the lid 10 hours later to discover caramelized perfection, I’d be all in. But you can’t. My feeling is that if I need to be stirring the pot, covering and uncovering, and manipulating the heat (for hours at a time, no less), I’d rather do it the old-fashioned way.

The Traditional Method

Here are a few tips to help you nail the traditional stovetop method:

Slice the onions vertically (i.e., pole-to-pole). Because of the onion’s fiber structure, vertical slices will hold their shape better when cooked to complete tenderness.

Use a shallow pan. This will let steam can escape easily.

Butter is great for browning and flavor, but olive oil works just fine. Make sure to use enough fat—say two tablespoons per three pounds of sliced onion. You can always drain off any excess when you’re done.

Start by cooking the onions over medium-high, stirring frequently, until they’ve started to soften and wilt down in the pan.

Turn the heat to medium-low, and cook them uncovered, stirring occasionally so they brown evenly.

If they stick a little here and there and form brown spots on pan, don’t worry: this is normal and actually good. Add a couple tablespoons of liquid to the pan (water or chicken stock), and scrape the brown spots to deglaze. The liquid lets the flavor and color of that delicious dark brown fond spread evenly throughout the mixture.

Yes, it takes longer than the high-heat approach, and requires a little more stirring than the slow-cooker method. But it delivers uniformly browned, wonderfully sweet and succulent caramelized onions every time.

Main ingredients

2 onions, peeled and thinly sliced

4 (4-oz.) slices minute steak

2&ndash3 medium white potatoes, cut in 1-inch slices

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons Gefen Onion Powder

1 teaspoon garlic powder or 2 cubes Gefen Frozen Garlic

1 teaspoon coriander

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Sommelier Suggests

About the Recipe

This recipe is great for a quick meal or is also an entertainer’s dream. The pizzas can be cut up into appetizer sizes and set out to nosh on at will since they’re just as tasty at room temperature. I use store bought flatbread for the base, which makes it even easier to create.

Make the caramelized onion ahead and store in the fridge or allow at least 1 hour of cooking time for the onion before assembling the pizzas. You want them to be rich and caramelized and that equals time. The trick to caramelizing the onion is to do it low and slow for a rich, earthy taste spiked with flavors of thyme. Use the leftover onions (if you have any!) for sandwiches or on chicken or burgers.

Instead of slicing the sweet potatoes in the traditional way, I used my vegetable peeler to make ribbons and twirls of the sweet potato, then loaded them onto the caramelized onion.

Herbs mixed into the ricotta cheese take the place of a sauce and feta adds just the right accent.

Celebrate the House Meal, the Go-To Dish for When There’s No One to Satisfy but Yourself

I have a recipe for fried rice that no Asian culture would ever want to lay claim to. It’s a recipe in the loosest sense, made when my partner and I realize we have enough of the ingredients already in the house, but nothing else to make it better or more cohesive. It’s easily added to or subtracted from, usually starting with vegetables we have to use up before next week’s CSA box, which means dicing up everything from onions to romano beans to amaranth leaves. We forget to make rice the day before, so in goes a heaping pile of freshly cooked basmati rice, and maybe an egg, or some frozen shrimp, so that the texture is alternately crispy and goopy. It gets seasoned with mostly soy sauce, but sometimes miso or gochujang whisked in. Out of the wok comes an umami-rich slop, fried rice only in memory. And honestly, who cares? Such is the glory of the house meal.

You, too, probably have a house meal, whether you’ve thought about it or not. It’s a dish that perhaps was once inspired by a recipe, but you’ve made it so many times, and riffed on it so often, that it bears little resemblance to any known dish. It is comfort food at its finest, a thing designed for your specific palate, with absolutely no thought paid to impressing anyone else. And unlike the mainstream understanding of “comfort food,” the house meal is about as experimental and adaptive as you can get.

“I was intending to make something resembling a traditional tortilla soup,” said Whitney Reynolds of Brooklyn, describing the invention of their house meal, “but then dang it if I didn’t buy the wrong kind of tortillas!” Instead of giving up, they sliced their flour tortillas into strips and put them in the soup anyway, turning them into “soft weird sloppy tortilla noodles.” Kristen Carzodo of Albany, California, says she makes what looks like steamed artichokes with aioli, but the sauce is just store-bought mayonnaise and vinaigrette mixed together. And Becca Thimmesch in Washington, D.C., says her “depression chickpeas” grew out of more popular recipes for chickpea curry, but turned into cooking a can of chickpeas with stock and onions, and then topping with yogurt and harissa.

But not every house meal is born out of a recipe gone wrong. Joshua Rivera says his house recipe — a fried egg over rice with a mix of hot sauce and ketchup — was just what his mom made when she was frazzled, money was tight, and she still had four kids to feed. And now, it’s his dish to make “as a solid backup or emergency plan” when there’s nothing else in the house and nobody feels like making much of an effort. Kendra Vaculin, whose house meal is dal mixed with scrambled eggs, said she first made it when trying to “cobble together a dinner from what I had in the fridge,” and found it rang all the bells of other egg and starch dishes, but with a comforting mushy texture. Reynolds also described a dish they made recently as “a real fucked up mess of Goya spanish rice mix, green olives, and ranch dressing all mixed together. Disgusting. Fantastic.”

What ties these house meals together is that mostly these aren’t things you’d serve anyone but yourself. Reynolds has added the tortilla soup recipe to their soup Patreon, and Rivera has made eggs over rice for his partner, but usually the house recipe is so calibrated to your personal comforts that it’d be almost too revealing to make it for anyone else. “It’s a single can of chickpeas for a single serving of dinner,” Thimmesch said of her house meal. Carzodo says she’d serve her artichokes and dipping sauce to the friends in high school, but for an adult dinner party she’d feel the need to make actual aioli.

So much of the impetus behind the house meal is an easy vehicle for soothing flavors, for times when you’re overwhelmed, busy, exhausted, or just don’t have the mental fortitude to make a bigger grocery list or cook something more elaborate. For Reynolds, “sloppy shortcuts” like the tortilla soup, or another dish they make with herbed goat cheese mixed in overcooked rice, have become even more important as they recover from contracting COVID-19 in March. “Six months on I’m still suffering from a lot of fatigue and I can get exhausted easily. I’ve particularly become unable to tolerate heat, which can make cooking pretty difficult. So the more things I have that I can just throw together without a lot of standing in a hot kitchen, the better. Slop SUSTAINS.”

However, it doesn’t mean the house meal is just about shoveling calories into your body. Thimmesch says her chickpeas are “for those nights where you just feel horrible and you want to make something for yourself that’s easy and fast and uncomplicated, but warm and brothy and wakes up your tastebuds a bit.” It’s not flavorless gruel meant only to provide you with filler, but your favorite flavors and textures at their most concentrated. Hot sauce and egg, chickpea and harissa — the elements of more complicated dishes reduced to their most obvious components.

I’ve always prickled at phrases like “comfort food.” The way it’s utilized in America tends to enforce a white, middle-class, and frankly bland palate. Comfort food is tater tots and mac and cheese, and the epitome of a home cooked meal is a “simple” (three spices maximum) roast chicken. Not that those things aren’t delicious, but this language sets up a stark divide: Outside the home is for the weird, the avant-garde, and the new. Home, where comfort lies, is for the simple and the unadventurous, with the assumption that “adventurous” is any cooking laying outside of a northwestern European tradition.

But as these house recipes show, “comfort food” is in the eye of the beholder, and can be an area of great fusion and experimentation. “I’ve been using tomatoes all summer to great effect, but greens work really well, or peppers (kind of menemen-y in vibe plus the dal), eggplant, caramelized onions, or leftover roasted squash,” says Vaculin of her egg-and-lentil mash. “I usually put whatever herbs I have on top, and/or a drizzle of olive oil or ghee or hot sauce or tadka.” My goopy fried rice is usually flavored with miso or gochujang, but sometimes I’ve added leftover tomato sauce and oregano, or takeout birria broth. The point is not adhering to any one flavor profile, but making something entirely suited to your tastes, whatever those are.

The house meal, then, is the epitome of comfort food — not in the broad sense, but when and how it actually matters. It is easy, it is replicable, and it doesn’t need to satisfy anyone but those in your household. And sure, you can gussy it up for company or just for yourself, but. why? I’d only ever add something I could just throw on top,” says Rivera, who once attempted anchovies with his eggs. “Any more work undermines the point.”

French Onion Soup

I had to scroll through the recipe page to see if this was your picture or a Serious Eats picture. That looks absolutely heavenly. Honestly, it looks better than the pictures in the recipe.

Yea, where’s the Gruyere!? It’s what lifts it from soup to something much more. It is a darn expensive cheese tho.

I just ordered onion soup bowls from amazon because of this post. Looks amazing !!

Is 2 hours of cooking onions worth it? Serious question.

Edit: more info: onions are full of starches which are converted to sugars through heat, hence why people grill onions. A lot of the sugars and starches burn off. But going low and slow for two hours would convert a huge amount of those starches to sugars and build up a very complex taste.

Yes. The way I do it, is I set an alarm on my phone with a five minute snooze. Every time it goes off, I hit snooze and go stir the onions. After 45 minutes or so, I have to cut it to 3 minutes. After another bit, 2 minutes. Then maybe towards the end, splash on a tablespoon of water every 3 of so times you stir it.

While this is all going on, I do any dishes, dust, vacuum carpets, sweep and swiffer the bare floors, get some laundry going. Just do all my household chores. As long as you're already on your feet doing something you can walk away from real quick every few minutes and come right back to, it's a piece of cake. The onions don't really require any kind of constant attention. Makes for a really productive couple hours with amazing soup at the end.

Yeah, there are no good shortcuts when it comes to onion caramelization. On the bright side, bulk yellow onions are cheap. So if you're going to caramelize manually over a few hours you might as well use all the burners and do a metric ton.

You can use a slow-cooker like many "cooking hacks" suggest, but the liquid doesn't evaporate. This leads to onions that are either as if you caramelized them normally and then boiled them down to baby food, or with the proper texture but only barely caramelized and without uniformity. Some people use a slow-cooker and pour off the liquid as needed, but that sacrifices a lot of flavor. Alton Brown has a microwave method that involves pouring off the liquid, but adding molasses to help compensate. At least it's faster, though.

Serious Eats does also have a pressure cooker recipe:

But note from the comments and rating how lackluster it is.

So, yeah, 1-2 hours for manually caramelized onions is worth it just cause there still isn't anything that comes close.

To automate the process, we need like a cast iron cylinder rotating over gas heat, some arduino chips and silicone spatulas. Dang that might actually work.

Tricks for Caramelizing Vegetables

To find the best vegetables for caramelizing, you need to find out which ones have the most sugar. Unsurprisingly, many of them are root vegetables. Onions, carrots, parsnips, and beets all have high levels of sugar. Beets, in fact, are used to make table sugar. Peppers and corn are also prime candidates for caramelization.

As Francis Lam explains, the key to getting really great caramelized vegetables besides heat is having the most surface area available on your veggies. The more area is exposed to flame, the more opportunity there is for flavor.

Grilling, roasting, and broiling are all optimal for caramelizing vegetables, but the really important thing to note is how you slice them. Long and thin (as seen in the carrots pictured above), will provide maximum surface for caramelization. Tiny dice, as Lam points out, will have more surface area relative to a big cube.

And remember: spread those vegetables in a shallow layer. If they're piled on top of each other, they'll only get mushy, rather than getting that intense, sweet, brown crunchiness that's so desirable.

Caramelized Onions Advice

I use vegetable oil, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. I’ll add a little more if i feel like its getting too dry.

I cut the onions. (My knife skills arent the best. So it has taken me a while not to cut each slice too thin or too thick.)

I put them in the pan whenever the oil gets to a certain temperature (i put in one onion and if it sizzles i put in the rest.) I never crowd the pan with onions if i can help it.

I add a bit of salt for flavor.

I only stir or flip the onions if i absolutely have to in order to avoid too much burning, or to brown the next side.

The heat is always on low.

The problem i have is that i know it has to be a deep brown color. Just when the onions start to turn even the slightest brown color, the edges of the onions start to burn. Only the edges. And this doesnt happen quickly. It happens after many minutes, taking its time like its supposed to. So i have to take them off the heat and eat them as they are. Theyre not bad at all, but i know i can get more color and flavor out of them. This happens every time i try to make them.

Sometimes i cover the pan with a lid to try browning them more evenly.

Ive tried two different pans. A non stick, and an average metal pan.

Sometimes i put a spoonful of water in it to deglaze it a little. (I hate using other stuff to deglaze because im real picky about flavors).

Sometimes i add about a teaspoon of butter to add flavor because i feel like im not getting enough flavor during the partial caramelization.

What is the secret to a good Indian Curry/gravy?

For making a good curry, the one and only technique is 'Bhuno' the masala properly. 'Bhuno' is cooking/frying the Onion, Ginger Garlic paste, Tomato and spice mixture until the raw smell is gone and Oil starts oozing out from the sides.

You would find most of the Indian curries involves this step. This thing needs time and patience. There are no shortcuts to it but believe me, it is worth the effort.

This CREAMY CAULIFLOWER CURRY WITH COCONUT is the latest addition to our favourite curry list. Have made 3-4 times in past couple of weeks. If you wonder why am I going gaga over this curry then let me tell you this curry is creamy and yet there is no cream in it. Nah, it is not only the coconut cream that has given the velvety texture to the gravy. So any guess on the mystery ingredient. Jump directly to the recipe to find out.

If you love Indian curries as much as we do, then here are few more delicious curries/gravy recipes

The 10 Most Popular Soup Recipes of 2020

During this objectively tough year, it’s perhaps no surprise we’ve been turning to soup—one of the most universally comforting dishes there is. As Virginia Woolf once said, “Soup is cuisine’s kindest course.” Beyond their ability to fortify the spirits, each one of these recipes is damn delicious too. We’re talking about a Taiwanese-style beef noodle soup laced with an entire Dutch oven’s worth of caramelized onions. A vegan(!) take on cream of mushroom so creamy, earthy, and silky you’ll wonder why the OG ever included dairy in the first place. And a brothy fish number bursting with jammy tomatoes and zippy lime. Here you’ll find this year’s 10 most popular soup recipes, starting with No. 1.

We got takeout from Slutty Vegan!

There are two things to know about Slutty Vegan here in Atlanta:

So when Dave learned that you could order Slutty V delivery through their new app, you know we did it right away.

Everything traveled well, and our order arrived in 35 minutes. That's a big change from the two hours I waited in line for my first Slutty Vegan burger a few years ago!

  • fried pickles
  • the PLT (plantain, lettuce, and tomato), a jerk plantain sandwich
  • the Sloppy Toppy, Impossible burger with jalapeños, vegan cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, and Slut Sauce on a vegan Hawaiian bun.
  • the Dancehall Queen, an Impossible burger with jerk plantains, vegan cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, and Slut Sauce on a vegan Hawaiian bun.
  • a side of coleslaw

The fried pickles are more heavily breaded than I normally like, but the breading was a great contrast to the strong flavor of the pickle. They were delightful dipped in the vegan berry mayo that comes with them!

Do know that those jerk plantains are spicy af. I loved my PLT, but the kid did have to pull the plantains off of his Dancehall Queen.

The slaw is also spicy, according to Dave, though definitely a more mild heat than the plantains. A side of slaw as of this writing is $1, and it is not really a shareable size. Next time, we will order more, so I can have some!

You Have Time for Cassoulet As Long As It's Not Actually Cassoulet

Last Tuesday I made cassoulet. No big deal. I stayed at work until past 7 p.m., got stuck on the subway on my way home, and still: cassoulet.

What? Did you not realize making cassoulet was so easy? Were you under the impression it was a elaborate, all-day affair? Not when you come to my house. And that's because my cassoulet move is faux-cassoulet, which means not really cassoulet at all. Instead, it's the Cassoulet Toast from Susan Spungen's latest cookbook Open Kitchen.

The founding food editor of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Spungen is a prolific food personality, with credits in both print and film (she was the culinary consultant and food stylist on Julie & Julia and Eat, Pray, Love). And I think all that experience was probably crucial to developing a dish that's so easily prepared but so robustly flavored.

A Big Batch of Big Beans Is a Big Help (When It Comes to Dinner)

In case you missed the subtext above, true cassoulet is kind of a big deal. It takes several days to make. There's braising and resting. There's the cooking of the beans, the searing of sausages, the confiting of the duck legs. There's more pork than you knew was possible in a single casserole.

Spungen's Cassoulet Toast isn't nearly as involved, but what it does is distill the flavors and textures of cassoulet into an easy dish that can be prepared in a fraction of the time. Is the flavor as rich as true cassoulet? No. But neither is the price. And that makes it ideal for chic weeknight dining.

The method is simple—first, caramelize the onions. This is the one step where Spungen doesn't take shortcuts—she cooks onions and garlic in a touch of olive oil for about 25 minutes over low heat until they've turned a rich golden brown. It's the foundation of flavor in the final dish, so it pays not to rush it—that said, if you're in a hurry, I've found that cranking the heat up and deglazing with two or three tablespoons of water whenever the bottom of the pan starts to look too dark is a great way to get onions caramelized a little more quickly. If you go this way, you do have to constantly monitor the pan so that the onions don't burn, but if you prioritize fast over low-risk, consider this my permission.

Next in the pan: a couple cans of large white butter beans (homemade beans work too if you have a stash sitting around), some canned tomatoes, and a few sprigs of thyme. You smash a few of the beans to thicken the sauce and then let the mixture simmer until the flavors have melded.

Once done, Spungen recommends rinsing the pan for the next step, but here is another opportunity for quicker cooking. Instead of using one pan for the toast's two elements, I chose to cook them side-by-side so that they were both ready for spooning over the broiler-charred bread at the same time.

And what is that second element? Duck confit. Yes, this is surely a very fancy ingredient for a weeknight meal—but that's what makes it so great. You only need 5 ounces of duck confit for four servings (or two servings if you're like me and my boyfriend and can't fathom not eating a second toast after eating the first and realizing how astoundingly good it is). Five ounces is about one duck leg, which'll run you about twelve bucks (at least, that's how much mine cost). They're easy to find in many well-stocked grocery stores these days just look near the bacon and packaged meats.

To prep the duck, you stick it in a covered pan with a touch of water until the skin softens, then you separate the skin and leg, and continue cooking each, flipping them both occasionally until the duck meat is warmed through and the skin has turned crispy.

The beans go on top of the charred bread, the shredded duck on top of the beans, and the crackly skin on top of the meat. A shower of minced parsley adds some freshness. Each bite is richly flavored: fatty from the duck and creamy from the smashed beans, with pops of acidity from the chopped tomatoes and an underlying sweetness from those onions. It may not technically be cassoulet, but damn, if it isn't satisfying.

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