The Basics of Not Being #Basic in the Kitchen 3: Caramelized Onions

The Basics of Not Being #Basic in the Kitchen 3: Caramelized Onions

The thing about caramelized onions is, they’re way fancier than they actually are.

…don’t read that last sentence too many times or your hair will stand straight up. But really, caramelized onions are delicious and sweet, and when you say that you added them to some dish—and you can add them to almost anything savory—people get impressed. Seriously, this is a good food to have in your repertoire.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Decent chef’s knife
  • Frying pan
  • A fat (I’ll be using olive oil for this blog, but you can use vegetable oil, butter, or, like bacon grease if you want)
  • An onion
  • Around 45 minutes
    • There’s also “cheating” way you can do this in 15 minutes (skip to the bottom).

What Kind of Onion?

You can use pretty much any kind of onion. Most people default to yellow, but it’s fine to use white or red—though the red ones kind of look boogery when they’re done.


Ye olde yellow onion

Let’s Get Started! Peeling, Chopping, and Crying

One of the reasons caramelized onions are fancier than they are is that they don’t require much prep work: all you need to do is chop the onion.

If you’ve never chopped an onion, start by peeling it:


PSA: Making Shrek references is scientifically proven to help you peel onions better.

If you want to be efficient, you probably would’ve chopped off the ends first, which here I either failed to remember to do or thought would be a valuable learning experience for readers (let’s go with the latter):

 Ends off

Now it’s time to make the first of our TWO MAJOR DECISIONS! That is, what shape do we want our caramelized onions to be? I went with strips, because I like a noodlely caramelized onion experience:

Crescentscutting done

…but you could chop them smaller if you want to be able to disperse them more thoroughly throughout whatever you’re going to add them to.

Something to keep in mind is, if you mince the onion—that is, chopping it into tiny bits—you may very well end up with a kind of caramelized onion jelly.  This is not necessarily a bad thing: you could then blend that with sour cream and create a delicious onion dip, and then you could eat that WITH A SPOON. Er, okay, with chips. Don’t eat sour cream with a spoon, it makes your heart frown.

About the crying: as you probably already know, chopping onions makes your eyes water. This is because when you chop an onion, it releases chemicals that mix with your tears and forms an acid in your eye You can decide if this is because of God or chemistry or both, but whatever the case, it is Working As Intended. Probably you should change careers and dedicate your life to making an onion that doesn’t make us cry. But in the meanwhile, just be careful not to cut yourself.

Time to Burn Some Onions

Another reason that caramelized onions are fancier than they are is that they’re just burned vegetables. That’s right: the goal today is to intentionally burn something. Should be fun. To begin, heat some olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat:

oil in pan

Give it a minute or two to warm up, and then throw your onions in.


They’ll sizzle and smell good and stuff. Make sure you stir them around a little. After a few minutes, they’ll begin to “sweat,” which sounds like a rude thing for a vegetable to do, but nevertheless:


Unlike most people, a sweating onion smells fantastic.

The goopy, sticky substance that builds up on the bottom of the pan while the onions cook is called the “frond.” The frond is our friend. When you stir, gently scrape the bottom of the pan and mix it in.


We next have to answer the SECOND OF OUR TWO MAJOR DECISIONS: when are the onions done? At this point, the process of caramelizing an onion gets very introspective. We’re about to learn some things about ourselves: are we worriers? Do we need to micromanage everything? Can we be patient? Does waiting make us anxious? Seriously, these are the kinds of things you’ll learn about yourself as your onion caramelizes.


Caramelized onions are just like that scene in Braveheart:











Okay, maybe I’m being a little dramatic. But only a little. You want them to turn brown and sweet and delicious and maybe a little crispy. If you stir them too often, you’ll disrupt the caramelizing process. Don’t stir them enough and they’ll turn black and bitter on one side. Keep the heat too high and they’ll get burnt and bitter. Keep it too low and they’ll never cook. Keep them on for too long and they’ll turn to jelly. Don’t keep them on long enough and, well, they won’t caramelize.












The best way to learn this process is to do it yourself a bunch of times. (Try not to burn yourself.) As with pretty much everything you cook, you should taste frequently: the best way to know they’re done is to taste them and think, that’s delicious, I’d definitely eat that. Still, here are two starter guidelines:

  • Keep the heat on medium to medium low
  • Stir every five minutes or so.

Allow for 20-25 minutes for one onion to caramelize. If you want to leave yourself some room for error, keep the heat lower. The process will take longer, but you’ll be less likely to overcook them.

…and Then What Do I Do with Them?

Add them to pretty much any savory dish to make it fancy. For example, I like putting them on burgers:


…but you can add them to rice, pasta, lentils, eggs, or any number of things. They’re basically a “certificate of fanciness” for any meal.

Also, You Can Just Cheat

A lot of chefs will turn up their noses at this version of “caramelized onions”—because we’re not actually caramelizing anything—but you can achieve a similar flavor in much less time by following the following:

  • Chop and begin to cook onion as described above
  • When the onions turn translucent, stir in a little balsamic vinegar and a couple pinches of brown sugar
  • Cook on low heat for a few more minutes (or to taste)
  • If somebody asks if these are caramelized onions, abruptly change the subject

If you want to learn more about cooking, read NOURISH Nutrition Peer Education’s column every Friday in The New Hampshire.