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Caramelized Onions: Sweet Rewards for Slow Cooking

Make them ahead, then stir them into weeknight meals for deep flavor fast

Fine Cooking Issue 71
Photos: Scott Phillips
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If you were one of those restless kids who couldn’t help charring marshmallows over the campfire, making caramelized onions might not be for you. The process of gently browning onions, though simple and straighttforward, does demand patience—about 40 minutes’ worth of stirring and watchfulness—but this culinary restraint is amply rewarded. Slow cooking transforms a sharp raw onion into an intensely flavored ingredient that can dress up everything from a quick pasta to a rich pan sauce. Make the onions on the weekend, when you have an hour to spare, or when you’re working in the kitchen, and then use them in the following recipes or in creations of your own over the course of the week.

A shortcut speeds up the cooking. While patience is a prerequisite for making caramelized onions, I do like to get a running start by wilting the onions quickly over medium-high heat and seasoning them early on with salt to draw out their moisture. Then I turn down the heat to medium low and stay patient as the onions slowly brown.

Don’t stray far from the stovetop. Caramelizing onions toes a tricky line between browning and burning. It’s important to stir every couple of minutes to work the browned bits on the bottom of the pan into the rest of the onions. Just in case the onions start to burn, I keep some water on hand so I can add a few tablespoons. I generally don’t need it, though, as with practice, I’ve developed a feel for the heat of my stovetop and for how often to stir the onions. You will, too.

One way to ensure the most even browning is to use a radial cut when slicing the onions. By slicing onion halves on an angle, rather than straight down, you get pieces of similar length and width that will cook at the same rate. See the master recipefor detailed instructions.

Simple dishes let the sweetness of the onions shine through. I like to make a large batch of caramelized onions since there are so many different ways to use them, and they keep in the refrigerator for about a week. The onions are great in stews and braises. Try pairing them with canned chicken broth to make an improbably easy onion soup.

As you’ll see in the recipes and suggestions below, you can work caramelized onions into whatever you’re making for dinner tonight for a touch of deep, earthy sweetness.

Pile the onions into a big pan.
Stir up browned bits from the pan.

Suggestions for using caramelized onions

• Caramelized onions perk up nearly any sandwich —especially roast beef.

Use the onions to top a pizza, along with crumbled blue cheese, crisped bacon, and sautéed greens.

• Make a quick pasta sauce with caramelized onions, sautéed sausage, tomatoes, and chopped fresh ­rosemary.
 
• Make a delicious pan sauce after sautéing pork chops or chicken cutlets by adding the onions to the pan while deglazing with wine or broth.

• Sauté spinach with garlic and then fold in caramelized onions and grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

• Try topping a burger or grilled chicken with the caramelized onions.

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