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Why not caramelize the onions a bit?

I read in recipes all the time- "try not to let the onions get any color", "being careful not to let the onions start to brown", "just cook the onions until soft and translucent", etc. Why not? I'm sure I always take my onions further than they are really supposed to go. I don't always caramelize them, but maybe just to the point that they are just starting to get some color. It is just an aesthetic thing? Like in a bechamel sauce, or whatever, where you wouldn't necessarily want bits of browned onion running through it. Or are there other reasons? What do you usually do?

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  1. I'm with you...I always cook 'em to the color I like. I don't care if a white sauce has brown bits. I like brown bits.

    1. Well- I will have to confess. We have one picky eater who always asks that I leave out onions in recipes- but I have discovered that she really only dislikes raw onions. When cooking onions, however, I usually do only take them to the translucent stage, as that way she doesn't notice them!! But, like you, I would prefer them a bit more brown.

      1. I think it is a flavor issue - not wanting to get the onions too sweet or to let them get burned if some people try to cook them too fast. But that being said - I love carmelized onions, so I often brown them a bit anyway.

        1. I think it's a flavor issue too. Cooking them longer will release more sugar, and depending on the recipe might change the flavor.

          10 Replies
          1. re: Infomaniac

            Totally agree. Carmelizing can bring up too much sugar and can upset the balance of a dish

            1. re: Candy

              What would be an example of a dish that you think it would upset the balance of? Just curious!

              1. re: Katie Nell

                For me, I know when I make fish chowder, the onions that I cook to long and are browned are always floating on the top vs. when the onions are translucent, they swim with the fish in the broth. Taste is a little different too.

                  1. re: wally

                    I usually brown the onions in a risotto a bit, taking my cue from pilaf. Am I disrupting the pH or just the aesthetics? I also usually top my risotto (usually a wild mushroom) with crispy shallots.

                    1. re: ballulah

                      IMHO, the sweetness of the carmelization of the onions can overwhelm other flavors in the risotto. Crispy shallots as a topping are a whole other issue and flavor. Could be really good.

                  2. re: Katie Nell

                    I had some left over caramelized onions a couple of weeks ago and decided to use them on a pizza. We ended up picking them off. They were so sweet they over powered the pizza.

                    1. re: Candy

                      I don't cook 'em to the caramelized state...just a nice light brown.

                      1. re: Hungry Celeste

                        Yeah, me too. But, I could see if you did fully caramelize them how they would be too sweet for some things. I think at the state that I take them to, you wouldn't notice any added sweetness.

                        1. re: Katie Nell

                          or you could combine the fully caramelized onions with goat cheese to off-set the sweetness

              2. I think it's a colour and taste thing. In classic cooking, they emphasize keeping things the same colour (ie white pepper in white things, which I hate) and also, in terms of taste, in classic sauces, etc., you wouldn't want the onion to overpower the other flavours.
                That said, doesn't mean it's the best way to do it and I prefer mine slightly browned too in most cases.

                1 Reply
                1. re: pescatarian

                  I was thinking about the white pepper too when I posted.

                2. 'Caramelized' is different than 'soft, translucent' onions. Caramelizing is the result when you oxidize sugar. To get there, you need a relatively dry, high heat source. (you don't add salt to the onions, or add them to a pan with fat/oil when you want to caramelize because salt will pull out moisture, and both will inhibit the surface contact with heat that you want).*I'm not a full food scientist, so feel free to expand/correct this.

                  Depending on your cooking style, I would bet that the demarcation has to either do with what has, or is going in the same pot (what is the heat you need to caramelize, how will that impact the other ingredients, or even the assembly process of the recipe), or the gestalt of the dish (shades of white or shades of brown- more of a French style).

                  I lean to the 'soft, translucent' type myself, but probably because I eat a lot of pasta.

                  Of course, it also depends on the type of onion you are using......

                  1. I'm with you Katie Nell! I like to brown my onions a bit. I remember watching an old Julia Child repeat on PBS one weekend, and she had Madhur Jaffrey cooking with her. Ms. Jaffrey expounded on the prevalence of shallots in Indian cooking and how she didn't understand why Westerners didn't brown their onions, that in Indian cuisine it was the only way to go. Since then, nearly everytime I saute onions (very frequently) I hear her voice in my head! "Get a lovely brown color on the onions!"

                    1. I made french onion soup last week and I can tell you, you want to cook those onions DOWN and release all that sugar to counterpoint the richness of the stock and the saltiness of the cheese.

                      1. When I was doing a braised rabbit with mushrooms and cream, I had planned to use onions only in the reduced-cream sauce, and cooked just to transparency...and then as I was browning the bunny pieces it suddenly occurred to me that the dish was headed towards the bland side. So I grabbed the other half of the onion, the part that I had not chopped fine, and cut it into nice big slices and browned them with the rabbit, poured in my stock, and proceeded with the braise from there. If I had been making the version with mustard, I would not have done that, but in the absence of any other aggressive flavor it worked very well.

                        1. I think the lesson here is that there is a time to caramlize onions and a time to sweat them and not develop the sugars or the color. Onions are a spectacular food and quite versitile, really.

                          1. Definitely depends on the dish. If I'm cooking peas with onions or shallots and butter, I don't want to caramelize anything because the peas and butter need to be the predominant (if subtle) flavors. In things with more layered, complex flavors, caramelizing can really help.