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How to Caramelize Onions

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Q. My question is this: What is the difference, if any, between caramelized onions and sautéed onions? I have a recipe that calls for the caramelized variety and I don't how to prepare them.

A. Sure you do. Just answer the phone or help the kids with their homework or find some other distraction — while the onions cook over low heat. OK, we're being facetious. You can't ignore them, but you must cook them for a long time.

You can cook onions to various stages of — and we hate this word, but haven't come up with a good alternative — doneness. They may be cooked just until they wilt and are translucent, where their taste has mellowed but is not yet sweet. Or onions may be oh-so-gently cooked until they are brown, and their sugars have caramelized and they have become quite sweet. Those are the caramelized onions you're looking for.

The only problem is, no one agrees on exactly how long to cook them. To some extent, it is a function of how many onions you are caramelizing — the more onions in your pot, the longer it will take. And some people are satisfied with a light brown caramelized onion, while others are looking for mahogany brown. You can count on cooking a couple cups of onions for 45 minutes, although the new Joy of Cooking (Canada, UK) recommends cooking 3 pounds of onions on the lowest heat for an hour, before turning the heat up to medium and stirring and cooking for 25 minutes more. We've also seen recipes that purport to turn out caramelized onions in 20 minutes — speed cooking, apparently.

The one point you must be aware of though, is that you don't burn them. A combination of rather low heat and attentive stirring will prevent that. Otherwise, instead of caramelizing the sugars, you will scorch them. And then you will have to start over again.

Caramelized Onions
From The New Making of a Cook (Canada, UK), by Madeleine Kamman.


1/2 cup clarified butter or unsaturated oil of your choice
4 cups minced onions of your choice, white, yellow, or red
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
Hot water as needed
Pepper from the mill


Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until golden. Add the sugar as soon as the onions have been coated with butter. Continue cooking until the onions are deep brown and candied; this will take up to 45 minutes. Add an occasional tablespoon of hot water if the pan becomes too dry. Season well with salt and pepper.

Yield: 6 Servings

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