Caramelizing Onions – Three Stages

Recently I saw an idea/recipe in Bon Appetit about three stages of caramelizing onions. In the past I have just made them to a golden brown for every recipe. Sometimes I have kind of scorched them where they were no good or even under cooked them where the recipes have no depth. Most times they have turned out beautifully.  Now I have a picture to go along with the taste of each stage. These onions are a little tricky to make as you need to be using the right temperature, stirring occasionally and then more frequently as they are almost done. You need to be on constant watch as they cook.

Over the years I have made many versions of caramelized onions using sweet, white or red; different ingredients; some were done in the slow cooker, others were made specifically for soup, a dip or maybe on top of pizza. I’ve made big batches and little batches depending on the recipe.

Ingredients  vary and can include butter, which has a tendency to burn or more commonly oil, or a combination of the two. There is always kosher salt and sometimes pepper and maybe an herb such as thyme. Sugar might be added to aid the caramelization process but this can also make the onions  burn. Often they are deglazed with wine or vinegar to scrape up those browned bits.

Some of the rules, always use a wide skillet – you do not want to crowd the onions, otherwise they will steam and not caramelize.  You want the water to evaporate and for the onions to caramelize naturally. For 1 onion I used my heavy copper 9-1/2-inch skillet; for 2 large onions a 12-inch skillet should be fine. I like to use a heavy duty skillet such as copper or all-clad so you can scrape up the yummy browned bits.

Since this was posted I made more caramelized onions (golden brown stage) and used 2-3 onions, instead of just one. The time to get these perfect was 60 to 75 minutes.

Cut the onions 1/8-inch thick as you want to prevent them from drying out and sticking to the bottom of the pan. Some suggest adding water if this happens, but you should try to avoid doing this. You are only putting more moisture back into the onions. If you cook them low and slow you should not have this problem. You need to pay attention and see if you need to turn the heat down or stir them.

Do not be in a hurry – you want to cook them slowly. Keep the temperature on medium-low throughout the whole cooking time. Do not raise or lower the heat. The onions I made (1 whole large onion for each stage) took from 35 to 45 minutes. You want to coax the onions natural sugars to caramelize.

Using Grape Seed Oil was suggested as it is a neutral oil; peanut and vegetable oils are also neutral. You don’t want your oil to add its own flavor to the onions like sesame, chili or walnut oils would. At least for these onions – recipes will vary but to have some simple, but delicious caramelized onions, follow these guidelines. I did and they turned out perfect as you can see in the pictures below. You can always kick them up a notch (love Emeril’s famous words) by scraping up the browned bits in the bottom of the pan or deglazing the onions with some wine.

The following are the three stages:

Blonde onions are ideal for French Onion Soup – these still have a little bite!

Golden brown onions are cooked a tad longer and great for onion jam (see recipe below), Caramelized Onion Dip  or Caramelized Onion Sourdough Biscuits.

Deep golden brown onions are great for your burgers or steaks – but you need to watch them and stir frequently towards the end of the cooking time so they do not burn.

One very large onion gets you about 1/2 cup of caramelized onions.

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Caramelized Onions

  • 1 large onion, cut in half and sliced 1/8-inch thick – I then like to cut them in half again
  • 1-2 tsp. Grape Seed oil or any neutral oil
  • kosher salt, just a sprinkle or two – I don’t add pepper
  • sugar, just a sprinkle  for caramelized onions for your burgers (optional) I did add a little in the deep golden brown onions

Heat the pan on high, add the grape seed oil, thinly sliced onions and a sprinkle or two of kosher salt. Toss to coat the onions well with the oil. Reduce the heat to medium to medium low (just depends on your stove and the skillet you are using). After ten minutes add a little sugar if desired. Cook, tossing the onions occasionally. I also scrape up all of the browned bits every now and then.  The three stages below took me from 35 to 45 minutes to reach each color. Please remember these are only guidelines and the cooking time will vary; judge the onions by their color.

For the first fifteen minutes I let the onions cook; then I toss them and let them cook another 10 to 15 minutes and toss again. After that I pretty much look after them every few minutes to see if they are browning too much or perhaps sticking.

Recipe by cooking with aunt juju https://cookingwithauntjuju.com/2015/12/01/caramelizing-onions/  

Everyone seems to enjoy these special onions so I am taking a big batch to Fiesta Friday #97 where the party is just beginning. Thanks to Angie, our host, and co-hosts Liz and  Johanne.

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Look at this filet topped with melted blue cheese and the finishing touch of caramelized onions. Triple yum!

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Onion Jam (America’s Test Kitchen):

  • 1 cup caramelized onions (you will need to caramelize 2 very large onions)
  • 2 tbsp. dark rum (too much – I would cut back by 1/2 to 1 tbsp.)
  • 1 tbsp. brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. fresh thyme, minced
  • 1/2 tsp. cider vinegar

Pulse the above ingredients in a food processor to a jamlike consistency, about 5 pulses. Season with kosher salt to taste. This is good spread on sandwiches or anything you would like.

I did not add any salt and I would reduce the amount of rum by 1/2 to 1 tbsp. I also used the deep golden brown onions.

For another excellent jam recipe see Bacon Jam.

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40 thoughts on “Caramelizing Onions – Three Stages

  1. Caramelizing onions is such a process, really great breakdown Judi. I rarely make them because it just takes so long but they really are wonderfully delicious and I should give this a try.

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  2. Caramelized onions is such a favorite of mine. I make a tart with nothing but it, and it’s always a great success. I love all the stages you’ve shown here. Beautifully explained and photographed. 🙂

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  3. Love this – my tip is to find the most patient adult in the household – and then elect them to caramelise the onions, it works every time, if I do it myself I always end up doing something else in parallel and they burn…

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  4. Very informative and interesting post, Judi. Caramelized onions are a decadent, secret taste in many recipes, internationally. Caramelized onion was my very first recipe post, and to this date the most viewed. I’m still very surprised by it. 😀 )))

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    • Thanks Fae – it was just a short little paragraph with a picture and I just loved it. Wanted to share it with everyone as it sure helped me. I will have to check out your recipe – my most viewed is Stuffed Cabbage Rolls!!! Go figure… 🙂

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    • Me too Kaila – I like being able to see the pictures and the different stages of caramelization. They do take time and patience. Enjoy your weekend – on the milder side here as the temp is going to reach 50 today – very unseasonable 🙂

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  5. Thank you for bringing this excellent tutorial on making caramelized onions to FF, Judi! My have had so many people tell me they don’t know how to make them. And they are such tasty additions to so many dishes!

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