How to Caramelize Onions

Updated on September 9, 2017
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Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over twenty years and has cooked on multiple television stations, including Food Network.

Perfectly Caramelized Onions

My oldest son calls it onion candy - correctly caramelized onions are naturally sweet, incredibly savory, and enhance  anything you use them with. Or eat them with a fork - as my boys did with this batch.
My oldest son calls it onion candy - correctly caramelized onions are naturally sweet, incredibly savory, and enhance anything you use them with. Or eat them with a fork - as my boys did with this batch.

How to Make Caramelized Onions

I love these—and my kids will literally eat an entire batch on its own if I don't move fast enough to stash them away to use in another dish. My oldest son calls them "onion candy," and once you make them, you'll see why.

Caramelized onions are sweet, savory, and enhance the flavor of so many dishes. They are the base for the iconic French onion soup and part of the incredible bacon jam, but can also elevate a simple sandwich or burger to an entirely new level. Throw them on a turkey club or a chicken burger, and you'll be hooked.

I'll give you the recipe first, then I'll walk you step-by-step through making this incredible relish.

Caramelized Onions Recipe - Ingredients

Ingredients

  • 3-6 large onions, sliced - depending on how much you want to make*
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 6-7 cranks (1 teaspoon) freshly cracked black pepper
  • 3-4 sprigs fresh thyme (optional)*
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, (optional - and I'll talk about this later)

*I used three very large yellow onions in this batch, but I often use up to six or eight. I'll literally just slice onions until my pot is full - it holds 8 quarts. The other ingredients remain the same, with the exception of tasting and adjusting for salt and pepper when the onions are done.

*I say fresh thyme is optional, and it is. But it really brings a lovely flavor to the party, and I really prefer to use it if I possibly can.

Caramelized Onions Recipe - Directions

Directions

  1. Cut the ends - both root and stem - off the onions. Peel them, cut them in half, then slice thinly.
  2. In a large heavy bottomed saucepot over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onions, salt, pepper, and thyme to the pot. (If using sugar, add it now). Bring the pot up to a boil, then reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Stir often.
  3. Every few minutes, give the pot a stir. You'll notice that the onions first release a ton of liquid, then begin to soften and break down. Maintain a simmer and stir every ten minutes or so, for about 45 minutes.
  4. Once you see the liquid that the onions released has almost completely evaporated, start checking and stirring more frequently. Keep the heat at medium to medium low.
  5. The onions will now begin to pick up color as the liquid is gone. Keep stirring, and start scraping up the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Eventually, you'll see the first dark brown bits. You're almost done.
  6. Keep stirring and scraping until you have lots of dark brown bits - at this point, you're done. It's very easy at this point to go from dark brown to burned, so be careful here. Taste, and adjust for salt and pepper. They're now ready to serve!

Types of Onions

You can use any type of onion you like. I use plain old yellow onions normally. They're dirt cheap and I buy in bulk. Cut off both the root and stem ends to get started, then slice the first layer to peel off just the outer layer.
You can use any type of onion you like. I use plain old yellow onions normally. They're dirt cheap and I buy in bulk. Cut off both the root and stem ends to get started, then slice the first layer to peel off just the outer layer.

What Types of Onions to Caramelize

You can caramelize any kind of onion - or really any vegetable, come to think of it. But my favorites are the large yellow onions. They're the least expensive, and they're the most pungent, and very strongly aromatic. They're also the most flavorful, and I think they make the best caramelized onions.

But feel free to use white onions if you like. They'll be great, and they are very widely available. My least favorite choice would be one of the 'sweet' onions such as Vidalias or Walla-Wallas. They're already naturally sweet, but the finished product wouldn't have the savory quality that a great caramelized onion has. They just don't pack the punch that I think is needed in the final dish.

Cut the Onions in Half

You can use any cut of onion for caramelizing, but the most traditional is slices. Cut the onions in half after peeling it to get started.
You can use any cut of onion for caramelizing, but the most traditional is slices. Cut the onions in half after peeling it to get started.

Slice the Onions Thinly

Slice each onion half into thin slices. You're increasing surface area - making more places for caramelization to occur. And caramelization brings the flavor.
Slice each onion half into thin slices. You're increasing surface area - making more places for caramelization to occur. And caramelization brings the flavor.

Sliced Onions Ready to Go

I used three really HUGE onions for this - normally I would use more. That's a two gallon pot, and I'd probably start with 6-7 very large onions. If you're going to spend the time, get the results! I ended up with about 1 1/2 cups of finished product
I used three really HUGE onions for this - normally I would use more. That's a two gallon pot, and I'd probably start with 6-7 very large onions. If you're going to spend the time, get the results! I ended up with about 1 1/2 cups of finished product

Sliced or Diced?

It doesn't really matter - you can dice the onions if you like. Diced onions can lead to more surface area, and better, more consistent browning. It may also be a tiny bit faster, but I'm not so sure of that part.

Slicing the onions is simply my preference. I like the texture that the slices give the finished product. I think it may be the more traditional way, as well. But I could be imagining that part. I do that a lot.

Time for Thyme

Not strictly necessary, fresh thyme brings a beautiful, citrusy, woodsy note to the party. Throw it in whole - the leaves will fall off as the onions cook, and just pull out the stems later.
Not strictly necessary, fresh thyme brings a beautiful, citrusy, woodsy note to the party. Throw it in whole - the leaves will fall off as the onions cook, and just pull out the stems later.

Reducing the Liquid

Fresh onions contain a ton of liquid. Caramelization is all about reducing something to bring out the sugars. Cooking the onions to evaporate this liquid is all about patience. As it evaporates it leaves behind concentrated flavor.
Fresh onions contain a ton of liquid. Caramelization is all about reducing something to bring out the sugars. Cooking the onions to evaporate this liquid is all about patience. As it evaporates it leaves behind concentrated flavor.

Evaporation Equals Flavor

In the culinary world, evaporation is most often called 'reducing'. You're reducing the amount of liquid, which leaves behind the concentrated flavor.

In the case of onions, you're evaporating off a LOT of water. I'd say that the three onions I used in these photos generated almost a cup of liquid. Keep the pot at a simmer and let the water evaporate. What remains are the flavor compounds and the sugars, and it's the sugars which will end up turning that gorgeous golden brown and give that amazing sweet and savory flavor.

Reduction Happening

See the difference from the previous photo? The onions have cooked for about 45-60 minutes, evaporating that water and leaving behind very concentrated flavor. It's that concentrated flavor you're after, so wait for it. It's worth it.
See the difference from the previous photo? The onions have cooked for about 45-60 minutes, evaporating that water and leaving behind very concentrated flavor. It's that concentrated flavor you're after, so wait for it. It's worth it.

To Cheat or Not To Cheat? Cheaters Never Win...

There are two 'cheats' you can use if you want to hurry the process along, but I don't recommend either one. You'll get brown, sweet onions, but the flavor is truly inferior to the method I described.

1. You can add more than a tablespoon of sugar. A little helps the browning and enhances flavor but more than one tablespoon makes the onions way too sweet.

2. You can also pour off the liquid from the onions instead of letting it reduce on its own. But you also lose depth of flavor.

Brown Bits...

Once all the liquid has evaporated, the onions will start to brown - very unevenly. Keep stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan. Watch for the first bits of very dark brown - that's when you're getting close to done.
Once all the liquid has evaporated, the onions will start to brown - very unevenly. Keep stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan. Watch for the first bits of very dark brown - that's when you're getting close to done.

Danger, Will Robinson...

When you see multiple very dark brown bits, you're almost done. You want to get as dark as possible, but you also risk running from dark to burnt. So stir often, and scrape the bottom of the pan frequently.
When you see multiple very dark brown bits, you're almost done. You want to get as dark as possible, but you also risk running from dark to burnt. So stir often, and scrape the bottom of the pan frequently.

Check out the Video!

Have you tried this technique?

5 stars from 2 ratings of How did it turn out?

Questions & Answers

    © 2017 Jan Charles

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