Slowly cooking onions draws out their natural sweetness as the sugar in them caramelizes. The result is sweet, tender, dark-brown onions that enhance the taste of just about anything from soups to meats.
All you need is oil, onions and a little time. You can caramelize any onion, but some varieties might caramelize more quickly depending on their sugar content. Standard yellow onions work well and actually have more sugar than Vidalia and other sweet onions. (See below for different varieties of onions.)
More important than the type of onion you choose is how you prepare it:
- Slice onions into consistent shapes and thicknesses to ensure they cook and caramelize evenly.
- Onions will lose about 2/3 of their volume as their water evaporates during cooking, so start out with more than you think you need.
- Watch the onions closely and stir frequently. As they near the end of cooking, you might need to stir every minute to prevent burning.
Caramelizing Onions Step-by-Step
Step 1: Slice
Slice root and top off onion; cut in half. Peel and slice. Use a large, heavy skillet so the onions are not crowded. Heat oil in the pan over medium heat; add the onions and stir to coat.
Step 2: Stir
Cook onions, stirring occasionally from the bottom every 5 minutes. Once onions begin to brown, reduce heat. Continue cooking 20-30 minutes, stirring every 2-5 minutes until onions are golden-brown, adding more oil if needed.
Step 3: Caramelize
When onions reach their desired color, remove from heat to stop cooking. Sprinkle onions with salt, pepper and sugar to enhance flavors if desired.
Jazz 'Em Up
Caramelized onions take on new personalities with these mix-ins:
- Fresh or dried herbs
- A splash of balsamic vinegar
- A few tablespoons of red wine or beef broth
Add 'Em On
Onions this good make just about anything taste better. Try them with:
- Mashed, baked or roasted potatoes
- Steak, poultry or sausages
- Scrambled eggs or omelets
- Sauteed vegetables
Make extra caramelized onions to keep on hand in the fridge (3 or 4 days) or freeze (up to 3 months) to dress up soups, salads, sandwiches and dips in a flash.
Types of Onions
Raw, cooked or caramelized, these versatile tearjerkers have real appeal.
White onions turn sweet when sautéed. They are the traditional onion used in Mexican cooking.
Pearl onions liven up your side dishes. Pickled, this variety is an essential cocktail garnish.
Chives can be used in place of green onions if you triple the amount (they're mild).
Leeks and their mellow taste often win over those who dislike other onions.
Green onions, or scallions, are onions harvested before maturity. Chop some on packaged foods to add zip and zing.
Shallots' flavor gets harsher as they get larger. Look for small, young bulbs.
Yellow onions, with their sharp flavor, are the most common and versatile.
Red onions add great color to dishes. Use fresh or lightly grilled.
More Onion Tips
How to Grow Onions >
More Onion Advice From Our Test Kitchen >
Video: Chopping Onions >
More How to Cook Techniques >