How to Perfectly Caramelize Onions

Updated on November 4, 2019
Lovely Day Treasures profile image

Melanie is an avid vegan homemaker who has been enjoying cooking and experimenting in the kitchen for over 15 years.

Caramelized onions are a thing of beauty.
Caramelized onions are a thing of beauty.

How to Caramelize Onions

As the old proverb goes, patience is a virtue, especially when it comes to making caramelized onions. Cooking the onions in this manner allows their natural sugars to come out, leaving them deliciously sweet and with a mild onion flavor. They are an incredibly versatile ingredient, making them a food staple, at least in my kitchen. Of course they are well known for making French onion soup; however, they are also excellent in sandwiches, quesadillas, pizzas, casseroles, etc.

It's imperative that when cooking the onions, proper time is taken to allow the natural sugars to be extracted slowly so they don't burn. Equally important is allowing the onions to sit and caramelize. This means stirring is not a frequent occurrence and should only be done every ten minutes or so to make sure the onions are not burning. Make sure that you have a squeeze bottle full of water readily available because from time to time you'll need to deglaze the pan as they cook. The little crusty bits that collect on the pan are called "fond." This is where the flavor lies, so it is crucial that the pan gets deglazed with water, so all of that lovely flavor does not get lost. Deglazing is also what will give the onions their beautiful brown color during the cooking process.

Just as important as deglazing is making sure you don't use a non-stick pan. If you use a non-stick pan, the sugars will not be able to stick to the pan and create the proper caramelization needed for this process. Certainly, I would also recommend doing research on non-stick pans because they are terrible for your health. The Teflon coating has been linked to many diseases such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, liver tumours and reduced fertility. Here's a great article that explains many of the dangers of Teflon.

I have always used a cast iron pan for this purpose, but if you have a pan that is stainless steel or copper, those would also work great. I would also suggest the use of a wooden spoon or spatula, especially if using cast iron. This will allow you to not scrape up your pan and ruin it.

Ingredients

  • 2-3 medium onions, halved, then 1/4 inch slice
  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • water, as needed

Instructions

  1. Begin by heating your pan over medium-high heat and adding in the oil. Add in the onions, then the salt, and give them a good toss.
  2. Reduce the heat to medium or medium-low, depending on your stove, and allow the onions to cook. This will take some time, about 1 1/2 hours, so don't rush the process. The heat should be high enough that you can hear the onions sizzling, but low enough that you can leave them undisturbed for 10 minutes without having them burn. This will require a bit of monitoring at first to assess how they are cooking, but once you get the hang of it, it really is quite a hands-off process.
  3. Every now and then you will notice that the pan is building up with fond. That's when you would take your squeeze bottle and put a bit of water in the pan to deglaze. When the water hits the pan it's important to stir the onions and scrap up whatever you can from the bottom of the pan. Don't add too much water, you don't want to start steaming the onions. Just add enough to allow the fond to break off the pan and start coating the onions. I would say probably 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time.
  4. When the onions are finished cooking, deglaze one final time to make sure all the fond is removed from the pan. Stir the onions well and evaporate any water, then remove them from the pan.

Photo Guide

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Trim the ends of the onions, split them in half, and remove the outer layer. If you have any root ends left on like the one in the photo, be sure to trim them out at a diagonal. If they are left intact, the onion layers will not separate properly.Slice the onions about a quarter inch thick. Any thinner and the juices will cook out too quickly causing the onions to burn. Any thicker and they won't caramelize properly. When cutting the onions go against the grain just like in the photo.Please don't use a non-stick pan for this if at all possible. It's much better in this instance to use cast iron if you have it, or at least stainless steel. Heat the oil until it's very hot, add the onions, stir, and reduce to low heat.This is the final product after about 80 minutes of cooking. Low and slow is the key and patience truly is a virtue! Before removing from the pan, deglaze with water and get all that lovely fond off of the pan.
Trim the ends of the onions, split them in half, and remove the outer layer. If you have any root ends left on like the one in the photo, be sure to trim them out at a diagonal. If they are left intact, the onion layers will not separate properly.
Trim the ends of the onions, split them in half, and remove the outer layer. If you have any root ends left on like the one in the photo, be sure to trim them out at a diagonal. If they are left intact, the onion layers will not separate properly.
Slice the onions about a quarter inch thick. Any thinner and the juices will cook out too quickly causing the onions to burn. Any thicker and they won't caramelize properly. When cutting the onions go against the grain just like in the photo.
Slice the onions about a quarter inch thick. Any thinner and the juices will cook out too quickly causing the onions to burn. Any thicker and they won't caramelize properly. When cutting the onions go against the grain just like in the photo.
Please don't use a non-stick pan for this if at all possible. It's much better in this instance to use cast iron if you have it, or at least stainless steel. Heat the oil until it's very hot, add the onions, stir, and reduce to low heat.
Please don't use a non-stick pan for this if at all possible. It's much better in this instance to use cast iron if you have it, or at least stainless steel. Heat the oil until it's very hot, add the onions, stir, and reduce to low heat.
This is the final product after about 80 minutes of cooking. Low and slow is the key and patience truly is a virtue! Before removing from the pan, deglaze with water and get all that lovely fond off of the pan.
This is the final product after about 80 minutes of cooking. Low and slow is the key and patience truly is a virtue! Before removing from the pan, deglaze with water and get all that lovely fond off of the pan.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Melanie

    Comments

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      • Lovely Day Treasures profile imageAUTHOR

        Melanie 

        11 days ago from Wisconsin

        Thank you, I appreciate that! It definitely takes some tweaking at first but don't give up hope. The hard part is finding that perfect setting on the stove, and being able to let them sit there for the duration of the cooking process. It's much easier to do on a gas stove in my opinion, but unfortunately, most people, including myself, have electric stoves. The water is absolutely paramount because without it, the sugar from the onions just continues to accumulate on the pan. Over time the sugar just gets too hot and eventually just burns. Don't be dismayed if you burn a few more batches, it's just trial and error, nothing more. I'm so glad I could be of help to you Kari, let me know how your next batch turns out :)

      • k@ri profile image

        Kari Poulsen 

        12 days ago from Ohio

        I find caramelizing onions to difficult. These instructions make it look easy. I've never tried the water and I've used non stick pans in the past. I will take your advice next time. I think this will make it much easier. Thank you!

      • Lovely Day Treasures profile imageAUTHOR

        Melanie 

        13 days ago from Wisconsin

        Thank you! I'm glad I could help simplify the process for you. Happy cooking!

      • Vellur profile image

        Nithya Venkat 

        13 days ago from Dubai

        Caramelizing onions is quite difficult for me, you make it easy with these easy to follow instructions. Thank you for sharing.

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