Cooking tips

3 ways to caramelize onions

Standing in front of the stove isn't the only way to prepare these beauties. Here are three methods for caramelizing onions, from stovetop to grill.

Slow-cooked brisket with caramelized onions

Slow-cooked brisket with caramelized onions. (Photo, Roberto Caruso.)

Caramelized onions are among my favourite foods. They’re one of the ultimate comfort flavours whether you’re adding them to a dish or eating them by the spoonful. Any of you who have caramelized onions at home knows one thing is true; these little beauties refuse to be rushed. If you want that umami-packed, mouth-watering flavour, then you need time – and there’s no substitute for it.

Since onions have a high concentration of water and sugar, the key to caramelizing them is to make sure these are both released at a slow and steady rate. As the onions are gently warmed they begin to sweat. The water is released first, then the sugars. The water then evaporates, allowing the heat to caramelize!

Some tricks and tips call for adding balsamic vinegar or brown sugar to the onions. The onions themselves have more than enough sugar within them, and these additions may make the onions appear caramelized because of these additions of colour but you will notice the difference in the taste. So for me, that’s a no-no.

So are there really three ways to make caramelize onions? Well, not really, because you will always need onions, a fat and time. But, there are different methods of achieving the result. By cooking them on the stovetop, in the oven or on the grill. Before we start, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Don’t cut the onions paper thin
They will burn before they have a chance to caramelize. 1/8-inch is a good width.

Avoid using a non-stick pan
You want the ooey-gooey goodness that is developed as the caramel adheres to the pan. You won’t get that with non-stick.

Deglaze the pan
Doing this with a tablespoon or two of water at the very end of the cooking process will release all the flavour. Cook, stirring until that water has evaporated, the onions are coated and the pan is clean.

Oil can be used instead of butter
I like butter for the flavour and it works because the onions are cooked at such a low heat, but oil will do the job as well.

3 methods for caramelizing onions:

1. On your stovetop
Peel and cut 2 onions into 1/8 inch slices, you will have about 4 cups. Heat a 12-inch skillet on the grill. Add 2 tablespoons of butter or enough to coat the bottom of the pan. When butter has melted, add onions and stir to coat. Cook for 5 minutes. Stir and repeat for 40 minutes or until onions are sweet, deep golden brown and very tender. Add another tablespoon of butter if the onions appear dry. Season with salt to taste.

2. In your oven
This is my favourite way of caramelizing onions when I want to do a big batch. Why? Because you don’t want to overcrowd a skillet when cooking on the stovetop. If you do, the onions will release their sugars and water at different rates (bottom first), interfering with the uniformity of the caramelizing. So instead, try the oven: Preheat the oven to 300F. Peel and cut 4 onions into 1/8 inch slices, you will have about 8 cups. Spread the onions over a large baking sheet. Drizzle with 1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted butter and toss to coat. Transfer to the oven and cook for 10 minutes. Stir, then continue baking, stirring every 5 to 10 minutes for an hour or until onions are sweet, deep golden brown and very tender. Season with salt to taste.

3. On the grill
I love, love, love the flavour of caramelized onions, but hate smelling like them. If you want to avoid your home and your hair smelling like onions, try doing them on your BBQ. The heat of a bbq tends to rise quickly so you do need to keep an eye out, lifting the lid as needed keep the heat down. They are delicious made this way, getting a added a hint of smokiness. You also must use a cast-iron pan. Preheat BBQ to low, about 300F. Peel and cut 2 onions into 1/8 inch slices, you will have about 4 cups. Place a 12-inch cast-iron skillet on the grill. Add 2 tablespoons of butter or enough to coat the bottom of the pan. When butter has melted, add onions and stir to coat. Cook for 5 minutes. Stir and repeat for 40 minutes or until onions are sweet, deep golden brown and very tender. Add another tablespoon of butter if the onions appear dry. Season with salt to taste.

 

Try it out with these recipes:
Caramelized onion tart with asparagus
French onion soup
French onion grilled cheese
Slow-cooked brisket with caramelized onions

 

 

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