What We’re Cooking This Week: Caramelized Onions – Willamette Week

Jim Dixon wrote about food for WW for more than 20 years, but these days most of his time is spent at his olive oil-focused specialty food business Wellspent Market. Jim’s always loved to eat, and he encourages his customers to cook by sending them recipes every week through his newsletter. We’re happy to have him back creating some special dishes just for WW readers.

It’s been more than a decade since political writer Tom Scocca exposed one of food writing’s dirty little secrets: Recipes writers all lie about caramelizing onions. Writing for Slate, Scocca exposed how famous writers for national publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post purported that onions cooked for as little as 10 minutes would become “dark brown and caramelized.” It’s just not true. Caramelizing onions takes much longer, from 45 to 90 minutes, depending on the moisture content of the onions.

While you can get some color on onions by using high heat, the results are uneven and often bitter; not the soft, sweet, jammy deliciousness of truly caramelized onions, which also involves another bit of culinary chemistry known as the Maillard reaction. While both result in darker color and more complex flavors, caramelization is driven by heat alone while the Maillard process brings amino acids into the mix.

Science aside, having a stash of caramelized onions in the refrigerator makes life both tasty and easier. A big spoonful improves almost any savory dish. Stir them into scrambled eggs, smear some on toast, or toss them in a mixed salad. Add a schmear of caramelized onions to any sandwich, make a classic patty melt, or mix them into sour cream or Greek-style yogurt for a quick dip.

Don’t be tempted by the wrong-headed advice to add sugar, baking soda, or anything else. All you need is time. And since it takes a while, make a big batch. Pile the onions into your pan, preferably a wide skillet, and add some olive oil (butter works, but the milk solids scorch easier). Once they start to sizzle, turn down the heat. Stir occasionally, take your time, and remember, as Scocca noted long ago, “the best time to caramelize onions is the day before you need them.”

4-6 onions, quartered and sliced about 1/2 inch thick

2-3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Pinch of salt

Water as needed

Combine the onions, olive oil, and salt in a large skillet or similar pan. Cook over medium high until the onions begin to sizzle and soften, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the onions become very soft and jam-like, 45 to 90 minutes. If they begin to scorch, add a tablespoon of water and stir. When the onions are done, add a little water to deglaze the pan, scraping the bottom well. Cook for another minute. Let cool and store for up to a week in the refrigerator.