How to Caramelize Onions

Onions are an excellent staple of so many dishes and can be prepared in so many wonderful ways. Caramelizing onions is one culinary skill that should be mastered as the product is so versatile; at one end of the spectrum, it produces a flavour that is essential in fine dining and at the other, it is something we can simply add to a hotdog!

So, let’s start at the beginning and understand what we mean by caramelized onions. The main point is that onions contain a certain amount of sugar, and caramel is made from the cooking down of sugar. When cooked correctly, onions caramelize and transform from simply fried into a whole new taste sensation.

For many of us, the taste is quite an unforgettable experience. Once tried, most would agree that it is something divine. Whether you were introduced to caramelized onions on a romantic foreign holiday or if it was simply the local hot-dog van, the taste is one of pure delight. This step-by-step guide will help you cook perfect caramelized onions every time!

Know Your Onions

Let’s start with which onion to use for this classic dish. The great thing about cooking this, is that it works with all types of onions. White onions, red onions, and shallots are all great for this slow-cooking method. However, as with everything in the world of cooking these days, experts do have an opinion and the general consensus is that the yellow onion (also called brown onion), with its high sulphur content, is the best. For most of us, this probably means the standard onion that you cook is actually the best.

The All-Important Cut!

Naturally, there is a right and wrong way to slice your onions for this process. The most effective way is to slice the onion long from the root to the tip. One pro tip is to peel the onion, cut it in half but keep the root end uncut so it holds the onion together, and then you can make long slices quicker without anything falling away on your chopping board! After you’ve made all your slices in the onion, you can then chop off the end, and voila, you are just about ready to cook! The basic idea is that because you’re going to cook the onions over an extended time, they should not be too finely chopped or you will lose all the shape and texture of the dish.

Oil or Butter

This is a matter of personal taste, but many chefs prefer to use olive oil and then add butter. One reason not to just use butter is that it has a lower smoking point and can burn on its own. If you have to choose, then we would recommend you use a good quality extra virgin olive oil as it is perfect for slow cooking.

Ingredients for Caramelized Onion:

  • Yellow (often called brown) onions
  • Butter
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Sea Salt
  • Brown sugar (optional)
  • Balsamic vinegar (optional)

Method for Caramelizing:

Heat your quality olive oil and butter in a wide thick bottomed pan. When the oil and butter are heated, add your chunky sliced onions and stir. The main idea is that while you need to keep the onions moving, you also want them to stick a bit to the pan to brown them, but not to burn them! Try to get as many onions in contact with the bottom of the pan as possible, thinking all the time brown not burn!

After 10 minutes or so, add a pinch of good quality sea salt and carry on stirring. At this stage, it’s probably time to listen to a favourite tune or start letting the wine breathe! Then slowly cook, add a little salt and carry on cooking for 30 minutes to a full hour. The time depends on the quantity but get them to stick to the bottom and then scrape them off. Stick and scrape, stick and scrape until everything is a nice deep colour. Finally, you can de-glaze the pan with a drop of balsamic vinegar and then let cool off.

Serving Suggestions:

Caramelized onions are a natural accompaniment to garnish a pepper steak, use in soups, on a quiche and many more culinary delights. Don't forget the simple joy of adding your beautiful onions to a burger or simple sausage dish!