Kitchen Basics: Caramelizing Onions

Sexy Salad 2

Caramelized onions, as seen in the Sexy Salad.

I feel a bit sheepish writing about caramelizing onions, because I’ve only done it a handful of times. But it was so easy and foolproof and delicious that I absolutely must share my onion caramelizing experiences with the world. If I can do it, you can do it too.

A note to nervous newbie chefs: caramelizing onions sounds intimidating, but it’s really not difficult. The most difficult part, for me at least, is being patient. You must allow yourself to step back and let the low heat do its work.

I’ve made caramelized onions with regular old yellow onions and with red onions, and both times they were amazing. I would hazard that any kind of onion – from vidalia to walla walla – is fair game for the caramelizing process.

To begin, peel your onions and slice off the tips. Then slice the onions as thinly as you can. This may require you to resharpen your knife, but it will be worth it.

Next, melt your butter or olive oil in a saute pan over very low heat. I used a nonstick pan for caramelizing onions because I’m a wuss, but this is not absolutely necessary. The most important thing is to keep the heat very, very low – I had my burner on the absolute lowest flame it can produce. Add your fat to the pan (I recommend being generous with the fat – I would use two or three tablespoons of fat to three medium onions) and allow it to gently heat.

When the fat is warm, add your onion slices and a pinch of salt. Then let it hang out for five minutes. Give it a stir – the onions will still look entirely raw at this point. Wait five minutes, and then give it another stir. Continue this process for around an hour, or until the onions reach your desired consistency. This can be quite a long time – one person on the Chowhound forums cooked her onions for two hours!

If it seems that your onions are beginning to stick, deglaze the pan with a little water, or a little wine (my preference). If they are looking really brown near the end of the hour, stir them a little more vigorously – every two or three minutes – to keep them from burning.

Patience really is key to caramelized onions. You cannot freak out if your onions still look raw after 15 minutes of cooking. You cannot turn up the heat. You simply have to let them chill out and do their thing.

But your patience will be rewarded, because caramelized onions have a deep, sweet, earthy flavor that is a perfect pairing to salads, sandwiches, or meat. If you are making them for guests, they will be amazed at your cooking prowess – you will have changed plain old onions into something truly divine.

For a recipe using caramelized onions, check out this sexy salad.



  1. Amelia said

    Lovely detailed description of a process some of us take for granted. Everyone should feel confident about making delicious caramelized onions! I add wine no matter what (even if the onions aren’t sticking per se), since it adds extra flavor and gets that fond back onto the onions.

  2. Silly question- but do caramelized onions keep? If so- how long?

    • moderndomestic said

      I actually don’t know. Maybe 1-2 days? Anyone else want to chime in on this one?

  3. What are your feelings on using sugar to carmelize onions? I suppose the wine does a bit of that, too.

    • moderndomestic said

      They don’t need sugar – the cooking process will turn them sweet. Wine definitely helps, but the magic is really in the onions themselves.

  4. rebecca said

    i haven’t tried keeping carmelized onions all by themselves, but I have kept dishes containing them in the fridge for 2-3 days. Most often I put them on pizza. I also freeze my pizza in individual slices and it reheats well in the oven.

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