If you’ve ever felt like “perfect caramelized onions” was an oxymoron or just more or less impossible, you need to check out my five tips below! Scroll down for video.
For years I felt like perfect caramelized onions were going to elude me forever. I always seemed to end up with what looked like blackened worms in a pan…and that was even after I was an established food blogger. I got sick of it and started studying the methods of my favorites: America’s Test Kitchen, Alton Brown, and J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. I’ve combined what I’ve learned from those places with quite a bit of practice to bring you these tips for perfect caramelized onions.
1. Turn up the heat
For years I believed that you had to caramelize onions over ultra-low heat and that it took at least an hour to get them to that perfect syrupy consistency. Following the tips below, though, I have learned that I can keep my heat on medium to get my onions caramelized in 30 minutes or less.
2. Crowd the pan
This goes against everything we’ve been taught about caramelizing food, right? When we’re cooking meat and many vegetables (mushrooms come to mind here), we want to keep plenty of space in the pan so that the moisture doesn’t ruin our caramelization. With onions, though, we want the moisture. I use the smallest pan that I can fit all of my onions in and once they shrink up I keep them all pushed together. I spent too much time burning my onions in a dry pan to let it happen again!
3. Sweeten the pot
All caramelization is is a reaction that draws out the natural sugars in a food. It makes sense, then, that adding a little sugar to the pan will just speed up that process. I don’t add a lot…about a tablespoon of sugar for every cup or so of onions. You don’t want to add so much that it will make the onions overwhelmingly sweet, just enough to amp up the caramelization process.
4. Don’t be afraid to season
A little salt will draw out some of the moisture in your onions, so I always add a generous sprinkle when I first put the onions in the pan. Later, I add a little more to taste. Black pepper is also good at the end, of course, and you can also add some fresh herbs (thyme is especially apropos).
5. Liquid is your friend
Going back to number 3…I ruined a lot of onions back before I knew better by cooking them in too large of a pan without any liquid. Now, the second that I see that the natural moisture from my onions has evaporated, I throw in some liquid. I always always start with a little alcohol – whiskey or sherry – and then finish with plain old water. If you’d rather not, though, you can just use water, or even some chicken stock. I just add a little bit at a time, and as the liquid evaporates, I add a little more, until the onions have reached the consistency and color that I am looking for.
Yield: 1 1/2 - 2 cups caramelized onions
5 minPrep Time:
20 minCook Time:
25 minTotal Time:
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 large onions, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup whiskey
- 1/2 cup water
- Set a medium pan over medium heat. Add the butter to the pan and allow it to melt.
- Add the onions to the pan and stir to coat with the butter. Add the salt and the sugar and stir again.
- Turn the heat up to medium-high and cook, stirring constantly, until the onions start to brown and browned bits cling to the pan. Add the whiskey and stir, scraping the pan, to deglaze.
- Continue cooking, stirring constantly. As the liquid dries up, add water two tablespoons at a time. Repeat until all of the water is gone and the onions are golden and syrupy. Remove from the heat and add more salt if desired. Serve as desired.
This recipe can easily be scaled up or down. I frequently cook about half this amount, just using a smaller pan.