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Three Onion Techniques: Sweat, Sauté and Caramelize

Patty collects recipes and researches food history. She enjoys sharing her findings with her online readers.

Red and yellow onions

Red and yellow onions

"It's probably illegal to make soups, stews and casseroles without plenty of onions."

— Maggie Waldron, American author

Onions and Garlic Are Aromatics

Onions are included in the culinary ingredients known as aromatics. All of these edibles are fragrant plants or spices and contain volatile oils that enhance the flavor of foods. When you walk by a garden of aromatics, you can smell the different plants easily, and some might make your eyes water. Wild onions can be especially strong.

Enjoyable and Healthy Eating

The oils in onions, garlic, and peppers, in particular, are helpful in fighting off some respiratory infections; when they are ingested, their volatile oils fill in the indentations in our body's cells which viruses like to attach and inject proteins! The oils act as a shield.

When I first learned to cook, I could slice, chop, and sauté onions. I once caramelized them accidentally (I discovered the technique by chance) and quickly burned them. However, I had no knowledge of the technique of sweating onions for sauces, soups, and stocks. An easy method of sweating onions is described below.

I've also gathered together a group of cooking heroes that have helped me not only to learn new culinary means and madness but to laugh no matter what circumstances life and evil clowns throw into my path. You may also enjoy the Kitchen Insider, Alton Brown, Skinny and Mini, Justin Wilson, and the Swedish Chef.

3 Ways to Prepare Onions

  1. Sweat
  2. Caramelize
  3. Saute

"An onion can make people cry but there's never been a vegetable that can make people laugh."

— Will Rogers, Humorist

1. How to Sweat Onions

Sweated onions are flavorful, cook at a lower heat and take about twice as long to prepare as sauteed onions, which are cooked at high heat.

Obtain a heavy skillet, wok, thick-sided pot, or Dutch oven, and be prepared to sweat your onions a little. You can add garlic, as these instructions indicate, or you can leave it out altogether.

Sweat happens before saute at low heat for about 10 minutes. Saute is hotter and faster.

Sweat happens before saute at low heat for about 10 minutes. Saute is hotter and faster.


  1. Chop your onions to about a ¼-inch dice, all about the same size.
  2. Mince one or two cloves of garlic to taste after peeling it.
  3. Heat your skillet, wok, pot, or Dutch oven over medium-low heat until it is pretty hot.
  4. Add only 1 or 2 Tablespoons of olive, vegetable, or peanut oil to the cooking pan, lift the pan from the burner, using a potholder, and swirl the oil around the bottom completely. Replace the pan on the burner.
  5. Be patient and allow the oil to heat through completely for about 10 seconds.
  6. Add in your diced onion and about 1/2 teaspoon of salt to flavor the aromatics and draw out some unneeded water.
  7. Try the burner's heat up slowly until you hear a low sizzle, not a loud sizzle indicating burning potential. if you hear a snap, crackle, or pop, reduce the heat.
  8. With a wooden spoon or rubberized spatula, constantly move around the onion and garlic as it sweats.
  9. Add the minced garlic and continue to stir for up to 10 minutes until the onions are translucent.

Using Sweated Onions

Particularly if you are using a Dutch oven, you can drain excess oil and water from the onion and garlic and continue with any good soup, stock, or sauce recipe.

2. How to Caramelize Onions

I learned to caramelize onions one time when I was sauteing quarter-inch-thick onion slices in butter. I needed to leave the stove, so I turned down the heat and covered the pan. Thirty minutes later, I returned to find caramelized onions slightly burnt on one edge of the pan. The rest tasted fine, and I learned later to add just a bit of sugar, salt, and pepper; but there are variations on the technique you can try.

Follow the method below for one cup of caramelized onions that can be stored in a plastic container with a lid for one week in the refrigerator. Or have a look at Alton Brown's method in the video below. Caramelized onions book for a longer time period than sweated onions and taste sweeter. The make a nice addition to barbecue sauces.

How to Caramelize Onions

  1. Peel and cut 2 pounds of Vidalia, Spanish, or Walla Walla onions into medium-width slices.
  2. Heat 1 TBSP of vegetable oil in a skillet over high heat. When hot, add 1/2 tsp salt and 1 tsp brown sugar and stir.
  3. Place the onion slices into the skillet and stir to coat. Cook while occasionally stirring for 5 minutes—don't leave the pan unattended.
  4. When onions begin to soften, reduce the burner heat to medium and stir the onions frequently now and watch unto onions are a uniform deep brown and somewhat sticky. This will take 30-40 minutes. If you hear sizzling, reduce the heat until it stops, and if onions do not brown at the lower temperature, raise it slowly until they do. Add pepper to taste, and the onions are done.

Using Caramelized Onions

The caramelized onions can be used in sauces, on sandwiches, and on pizza, to name a few. Try them with your favorite recipes, especially your homemade barbecue sauces.

An Onion Of A Time

There was an Old Man of Kilkenny,

Who never had more than a penny;

He spent all that money,

In onions and honey,

That wayward Old Man of Kilkenny.

— Edward Lear, "Nonsense Books"; Inventor of the Limerick

3. How to Sauté Onions

Sauteing onions is another one of the basics for onion preparation that brings out the flavor of this vegetable before adding it to soups and sauces or other dishes. It is important to heat the sauté pan, skillet, or wok to high heat before adding the fat in which you will sauté the onions. View the video below of Chefs Skinny and Mini, Doug Miller, and Chuck Love sauteing onions.

Wok sauteing

Wok sauteing

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.

© 2010 Patty Inglish MS