The Best Way To Caramelize Onions: Add A Touch of Sweetness To Your Food

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Caramelized onions are the recipe topper we all need more of in our lives. Wonderfully versatile, these sweet, tangy onions work as a garnish on everything from pizza to hot dogs. 

Caramelization is a science, not to mention a (worthwhile) labor of love. Caramelization results from the breakdown of sugar. While this process may sound complex, it isn’t difficult to pull off. Chefs apply this cooking trick to various foods, from onions to roast vegetables to fruity desserts. As the water in vegetables or fruit gets evaporated and sugars like sucrose and glucose are broken down, the food turns caramelly and nutty.

If you’ve had enough science class for the day and are ready to put your skillet to the test, read on for how to make easy caramelized onions.

How to caramelize onions

Preparation time: 5 minutes

Cooking time: 1 hour

Total time: 1 hour 5 minutes

Servings: 8

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or unsalted butter
  • 4 medium or 3 large onions, thinly sliced
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon brown sugar (optional)

Preparation instructions 

  1. Heat the oil in a non-stick or cast-iron skillet on medium-high heat. You’ll need to use a large skillet so that the onions can spread out in the pan in one or two thin layers. Add the sliced onions and sugar (optional) and sauté for five minutes, until the onions are soft and translucent.
  1. Add the salt, reduce to medium-low heat, and cook slowly for roughly one hour, stirring every few minutes to prevent burning. The onions will turn golden brown and become very soft. They will also greatly reduce in size.

Recipe adapted from Love and Lemons.

Nutritional values per serving

Calories: 52

Total Fat: 3.6 grams

Saturated Fat: 0.5 grams

Cholesterol: 0 milligrams

Sodium: 119 milligrams

Carbohydrates: 5.1 grams

Fiber: 1.2 grams

Sugar: 2.3 grams  

Protein: 0.6 grams 

Nutrition value estimates for the recipe above are made with olive oil and without the optional brown sugar. 

maxandrew – stock.adobe.com

Caramelizing Tips: 

  1. Give it some sugar: Help the caramelization process along by adding a hint of sugar. But don’t overdo it; the natural sugar of the onions is enough to create a sweet flavor.
  1. Practice patience: Caramelized onions take time and turning up the heat won’t help them cook faster. It could burn them. This is a “low and slow” recipe, so don’t rush it. You’ll be glad you didn’t. 
  1. Use broth: Some recipes recommend using chicken or vegetable broth to deglaze the pan. “Deglaze” is a cooking term meaning using a bit of liquid (usually broth or wine) to help you scrape browned bits of food from the bottom of the pan. This keeps the pan clean and the food — in this case, the onions — from burning instead of caramelizing. 

How to use caramelized onions

Pizza: 

Layer fresh pizza dough or flatbread with marinara sauce, ricotta or mozzarella cheese, and roasted vegetables. Top with a layer of caramelized onions before baking. Garnish the cooked pizza with fresh greens like arugula and admire your gourmet creation.

Sandwiches: 

Heat some butter in a skillet and toast two slices of bread. Layer one of the toasted sides with flavorful cheeses like Swiss or cheddar. Smear the other side with dijon mustard and mayonnaise before layering it with caramelized onions and deli meats like ham, turkey, or pepperoni. Press the two sides together and toast on each side, letting the cheese melt before enjoying this delicious pressed sandwich.

French onion soup: 

While the broth of this soup might be delicious, it’s the thick slab of creamy cheese, the crusty bread, and the sweet layer of caramelized onions that make it exceptional. 

Baked brie: 

Serve baked brie with a side of caramelized onion and warm cranberry sauce. Serve with warm french bread as a party appetizer or a light weeknight meal. 

Grilled fish or meat: 

Grill or sauté a filet of salmon or chicken breast. Garnish with a layer of caramelized onions and serve with a side of steamed or roasted veggies and rice for a completely gluten-free meal.  

Hotdogs & hamburgers: 

After grilling a hotdog or hamburger and nestling it in a toasted bun, top with your favorite cheese or condiments and caramelized onion. Add some avocado slices for extra creaminess. 

bbivirys – stock.adobe.com

FAQs

What are the best onions to caramelize?

Red and yellow onions work especially well because of their sweet, complex flavor. Red onions also add a colorful visual aspect to a dish. That said, any kind of onions will work, including white onions and other alliums like shallots. 

How long to caramelize onions?

Properly caramelizing onions takes roughly one hour, and it’s best not to try to speed things along. Higher heats lead to burning. You need to give the onions time to release the natural sugars and this process can’t be forced. For optimal results, use a low heat and leave yourself enough time to let them simmer. You can take advantage of this time by preparing the main dish you’ll be serving with the sweet onions. 

What’s the best way to caramelize onions?

If you follow this caramelized onion recipe, you’ll end up with a perfectly soft, nutty finish. 

How long can I store caramelized onions? 

You can store caramelized onions in an airtight container for roughly 5 days

If you’re grilling a hamburger and want to top it off with some caramelized onions, order the perfect Vidalias from Gopuff. While you’re at it, get some extra mustard and mayonnaise, and have it all at your door in a matter of minutes. 

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