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how to get onions to soften

i don't know why but i can never seem to get onions to soften when i sautee them on the stove. i have tried using lower heat, adding salt, cooking for a longer time (8-10 minutes), cooking with the cover on, adding some water... they always still feel crunchy when i'm done! i cannot figure out what i am doing wrong. how do you get onions to soften?

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    1. Usually they dont need to be totally without firmness - when recipes say 'soften' they mean partially.

      A couple tsps of olive oil, medium heat put in sliced onions (or chopped) 15 mins - they are usually fairly soft. If you add stock or water along the way they are usually very soft.

      Why do you want them super soft?

      2 Replies
      1. re: marcharry

        i am usually making indian food and i like the onions to just kind of moosh into the surrounding stuff. from what i'm reading, maybe i'm using too high of heat and not cooking them long enough. keep the tips coming =) thanks!

        1. re: arifa

          I think that Indian softness needs something like a hour or more of braising. That is, the onions don't start to disintegrate and thicken the sauce until it cooks that long. But the pressure cooker is the modern secret weapon. Dice your onions, saute them briefly, and then cook at pressure for 10 minutes. When you open the lid the onions will be intact, but are soft enough to mash with a spoon. I think vegetables like onions are very sensitive to temperature, when it comes to softening them. Below boiling they take for ever, above boiling it is quite fast.

      2. Put a lid on them, they'll soften from the steam. Sorry I didn't read your topic very well. I make french onion soup often, I use a huge saute pan with layers of onions, I cut them very thin, add butter and a dab of olive oil, flip them every now and again and cover with the lid. I never add water, but then again I cook them 30- 40 min on low. Actually 8-10 minutes and not knowing the stove or the pan, doesn't sound like long enough to soften an onion. Not on my stove anyway.

        1. I find it usually takes about fifteen minutes on low - medium/low heat to soften onions. I believe that, as previously noted, the "lid on" technique helps. There should be enough natural moisture in the onions to provide the steam but it wouldn't hurt to add a little water (or wine) to help motivate the development of steam.

          1. Freeze sliced/chopped onion. This breaks the cell walls and they will soften quicker right out of the freezer and into the pan than would freshly-prepared onions. I buy 5pound or larger bags and spend an hour or so prepping them, so there's always a freezer-baggie of onions ready for instant use. Chilling them first cuts down on tear-production.

            1. How are you using these onions after you cook them? If you are adding sauteed onions to a finished dish, you're not going to get soft onions. If you saute onions as PART of the dish, and the dish has enough moisture, that's how you will get them soft. Think French onion soup.

              Please clarify exactly how you're using the onions.

              2 Replies
              1. re: HaagenDazs

                indian food. i've watched my mom do it a million times and can't figure out why i can't get the same result.

                1. re: arifa

                  I'm by NO means an Indian food expert but frankly, I know enough to know that "indian food" as a description is far too large of a cuisine to know what you're doing with onions. You're "clarification" is nothing of the sort. I'll say it again:

                  Adding sauteed onions to a finished dish: you're not going to get soft onions.

                  Saute onions as PART of the dish, and the dish has enough moisture, they will be soft.

                  You mention Indian food so I assume that they are probably part of a more liquid-y dish - something with a significant sauce as a part of it. The other part of the problem may be that you're simply not cooking the onions long enough.

                  Can you ask your Mom? Can you follow her steps exactly? Cooking times, etc? mcel215 has a good point about thickness of the cut. Are knife skills a potential issue?

                  PLEASE tell us EXACTLY what you are cooking. Until then ALL of us are merely speculating.

              2. You may be cutting them too thick. Slice them thinly and add a tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkle with salt.

                1. Ok, what you want to do is called "sweating" the onions. Sweating is the process of releasing flavors with moisture and low temperatures. Fat, in this case, is used just to hold the non-volatile flavors as they're released from the onion. No browning takes place. The pan is covered so the lid traps steam, which condenses and drips back on to the onions. Some cooks cover the onions directly with a piece of foil or parchment, than add a lid as well.

                  Sautéing on the other hand uses a small amount of fat, and it's done in an uncovered pan. As fat reaches higher temperatures than water, cooking usually occurs quickly, and you can easily see the onions become translucent as they move from raw to cooked.

                  Please have fun!

                  1. 10 minutes doesn't sound long enough.

                    1. I know there are a lot of people who will object, but if softening is your goal, there's nothing better than the microwave. Chop or slice the onions, place them in a microwave-safe container, drizzle with a little oil or butter, cover and cook for 2 or 3 minutes, depending on the amount of onions and power of the oven. They come out lovely, fragrant and soft, ready to be added to your recipe.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: Calstanhope

                        I make caramelized onions for italian sausage sandwiches. Put some butter or spread (smart balance) in a cast iron pan. Put the heat to about medium high. Just stir often, they usually turn golden brown in just a few minutes (take them off the heat when they are done so they do not burn). Oh..cut them into thin rings first, then cut the rings in half. that shape really is conducive to golden, softened onions. They go great on sandwiches or a patty melt. My 2 year old boy slurps them up, he thinks they are noodles.

                      2. One don't add water, I add salt when done not right at the start. I use a combo of butter and olive oil, onions thin sliced and then cook, stiring often, pepper is good to add right away. I cook mine 15-20 minutes, 8-10 is not nearly long enough. I add the salt at the end. If anything maybe a little chicken broth while cooking but very little, liquid is not needed. My are soft and perfect. Don't try to do to much, just takes time. is all.

                        1. Arifa, your seasoning method isn't really of great importance in terms of achieving the goal of soft onions. The problem with your technique is simply your cooking time. 8-10 minutes is far, far too short for the onions to start to caramelize.

                          Personally, I use olive oil and butter generously, then add thinly chopped onions onto the pan and let them simmer at low-medium heat for around 30 minutes. Stir from time to time to make sure all the onions are being cooked evenly, and make sure all the onions are covered in the olive oil.

                          Halfway through I like to add some finely diced garlic and freshly chopped chives to the recipe; the onions are already naturally full of flavour but I enjoy the way this adds to the intensity of the dish. However, I don't know what your Indian recipe calls for so I don't want to ruin it :)

                          If you feel the onions are cooking too quickly cool it down with a few tbsp of water. The last 5 minutes or so I'll add a splash of dark soy sauce and cooking wine to liven things up. At this point you want to stir constantly to keep the onions moving in order to prevent the soy sauce from burning.

                          You should finish with a delicious pan of wonderfully soft onions that just practically melt in your mouth. Packed with flavor, aromatic, and not to mention healthy!

                          6 Replies
                          1. re: canadianhero

                            I agree with short cooking time 30 minutes is long to me. Like the garlic never add dark soy unless serving with a chinese dish. chives are ok but I like just onions. 15-20 if thin cut is adequate. depends on how dark you want them. I just like soft and lightly carmel color. Not too dark.

                            Olive oil and butter both work, I use both or either or.

                            1. re: kchurchill5

                              You can add soy sauce to lots of things. It doesn't come across as Asian ("chinese") at all.

                              1. re: HaagenDazs

                                I know, I just don't like soy with onions ... and I think the onions taste good as is. Why spoil a good taste.

                                1. re: kchurchill5

                                  "Spoil" is relative. To say that you should "never" add soy sauce or garlic to something that isn't "chinese" is kind of naive. Especially coming from a "chef." And to think that the "chinese" are the only ones that use soy sauce is not correct either.

                                  Obviously we're giving advice to someone who is trying to learn some cooking techniques, and statements like "never" indicate that bad things could happen if you do add it, which is of course not the case.

                                  Rick Bayless adds soy sauce to all kinds of things, for instance.

                                  1. re: HaagenDazs

                                    May not ever, but to me the onions were fine. Soy to me usually relates to chinese or asian flavor. Not always, I am aware of that. But basically I think it would spoil the onions. They were good as is. Sorry I stated incorrectly or you took it wrong.

                                    WOW, remind me not to say never again, I felt I like I'm getting time out in the corner. Sorry, my point was only I felt that adding soy was not necessary and I use soy primarily in asian or chinese flavors and this wasn't it. I was my opinion as well. And I never said it was bad I said I didn't think it should.

                                    My deepest apologies for my opinion.

                                    1. re: kchurchill5

                                      Opinions are fine that's why we're here - just consider the reader/audience. If you're teaching a brand new cook how to do things and you mention "never" add soy sauce or garlic to onions unless you serve them in a "chinese" dish, don't you think that's a little too strong of a statement? And what if the cook was preparing a Japanese dish? Could they add soy sauce and garlic to that? After all it's not "chinese." How about Korean?

                          2. Are you slicing them lengthwise or crosswise? Crosswise will cut through the fibers in the onion, so they will get softer than if they are sliced lengthwise, which leaves the fibers intact.

                            1. I cut in half and then with the grain into thin rings. My preference

                              1. a trick I learned is to add a small pinch of baking soda to the saute pan while the onions are cooking. It softens them up right away. You can also just add a little bit of water or broth a few minutes in.

                                1. Onions normally take a LOT longer to soften than that, and if your aiming for a deep dark mahogany, such as for French onion soup, 45 minutes would be the bare minimum.