It’s good to be back after a much-needed break to the ocean. After not traveling for almost two years (which is very unlike me) we bit the bullet and went on a low key trip to the gulf. We ate our weight in seafood, watched ridiculously beautiful sunrises and sunsets and coated our skin in sand. It was amazing.
Getting back into a routine can be hard for someone like me who likes to wander. But alas, I dug my heels into researching and found questions that needed answers. One that stuck out to me were the numerous amounts of people asking, why do my onions keep burning?
Caramelized onions are an easy way to added richness and depth of flavor to any dish but if you don’t take it low and slow then you’re often left with burnt crispy onions.
Here’s how I cook my perfect every time caramelized onions!
Caramelizing vs Sweating
I’ve seen a bit of confusion amongst Googlers who weren’t sure what the difference between caramelizing onions and sweating onions is. Funnily enough, you do actually need to sweat your onions to get to the caramelization process!
Sweating your onions, or any food really, simply means to cook out the water content. So for onions, you’ll sweat them out and they’ll turn translucent but they’ll still keep their integrity.
Whereas caramelizing onions changes their consistency and color to give them a rich, brown color and flavor.
However, caramelizing is a lengthier process and you will need to sweat your onions first to rid them of their moisture so that their sugar content can start breaking down into that beautiful browned goodness.
How to Prep
In a household of two I usually just caramelize one onion. I cut off the north and south ends and slice my onion in half. Then I slice each half into strips that are about 1/4″ thick. You don’t want to slice them too thin or they’ll cook too fast which could cause them to burn.
You’ll also want to start out with a fat. I choose oil and butter. Butter gives it a good flavor and helps with the caramelization and the oil helps the butter not to brown too fast.
I also keep a little measuring cup of water next to me. I’ll explain this in a bit!
Choosing Your Pot or Pan
I have seen that a lot of people, no matter what, end up with burnt onions. They’re following every detail correctly which leads me to think maybe their pot/pan is just too thin.
I cook my caramelized onions in an enamel Dutch oven. Mine is 6qt so the base is plenty big for the one onion I usually prep. If you have a well seasoned cast iron you could use that as well. But I never have so I can’t give you honest feedback on it.
I would, however, stay away from stainless steel. I’ve never had a good experience with stainless pans.
If anything, play it safe with non-stick!
Low and Slow
The caramelization process needs to be low and slow. For my one onion, it usually takes up to 30-45 minutes for it to perfectly caramelize. I set my stove to medium-low and lower it if needed. I use a gas stove and the flames can keep my pot/pan pretty hot so I do end up turning it down to 2 pretty quickly. While my onions are sweating I stir them often so that they don’t start to brown.
Stirring often means that I’m breaking up the heat and adding ventilation in a sense to keep my onions from burning.
Some people do large batches of caramelized onions and if you choose to do so just know that your cooking time will be longer! For larger amounts it can take up to 1-2 hours.
Let’s Start Cooking!
You’ve got your pot/pan. You’ve got your butter and oil. Set your stove to medium-low and place 1tbsp of butter (for one onion) and a drizzle of oil. Just enough to coat the bottom of the pan!
The less fat you use the more jammy and decadent your onions will be.
The more fat you use the more charred and fried they will be.
If you like them more charred then by all means add more fat!
Once your butter is melted and oil is heated then add your onions. Stir often so that they can sweat out all the moisture before they start to brown.
*Note: if you’re using a larger amount of onions, remember this process will take longer. Especially if your pot/pan is overcrowded. No worries, they will still caramelize. Just grab a drink, turn on some music and stir every once in a while.
Once I notice the browning process beginning I tend to let them sit and only stir every 4-5 minutes. Once you notice the bottom of the pan browning give them a little stir. You may have heard your mom or grandmother call this brown bits or pan drippings but the technical term for it is a french word called fond.
This is the good stuff that helps the caramelization taste so good. Once you’ve got a good bit of browning, add a teeny splash of water. About a tsp and no more than a tbsp. Your pot/pan will steam and onions will sizzle, just give them a quick stir.
Your onions will absorb the fond and start to appear more brown. And like chef Anne Burrell says, brown food tastes good!
Repeat this process until your amount of onions has the consistency you’re looking for. Again, for more jammy onions like the ones you see on burgers, don’t add any more oil or butter.
If you want them a little more charred which is how I like them on top of a steak, don’t be afraid to splash a little more oil in the pan to fry them up a bit.
What to Serve Them With