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I cheat on caramelized onions

Making caramelized onions takes a long time – 40-45 minutes or so to do it properly. Sometimes I need them in a hurry and that’s just way too long. So I’ve been cheating like this:

I sweat the onions for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. I’m impatient so I use medium heat and I use very little oil so the onions start browning pretty quickly. I keep stirring to coat the onions with some of the brown bits. I deglaze with a splash of water now and then to keep it from scorching. After just 10 minutes or so, the onions are already a pretty golden color and they’ve become quite pliable. I dump the onions into a bowl, cover with plastic and microwave for 4-5 minutes. The bowl gets freaking hot so I use a pot holder to remove it. I return the onions to the pan and let them get deep golden brown at medium heat - which takes only 2-3 minutes more. I deglaze again if it starts to scorch and stick to the pan. This method doesn’t develop as much sugar as the *proper* method, but takes about half the time and works just fine for 90% of recipes I make.

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  1. You would accomplish the same thing by par-boiling them before dropping them into a pan of hot oil.

    1 Reply
    1. re: todao

      I've tried that... doesn't work too well. You don't get enough color development and there is a marginal loss of flavor. Plus you end up with an extra pot to wash. I'd rather wash a small bowl than a pot.

    2. The slow cooker makes perfect caramelized onions, no stirring. I was skeptical when I first read it here but it works.

      16 Replies
      1. re: chowser

        ditto, I just bought 2 big bags of onions and plan to make a batch, they freeze very well also!

        1. re: geminigirl

          @geminigirl: you freeze the onions AFTER caramelizing them? Wow, I would have thought they'd be trashed. If you have a technique i'd love to know about it because my own technique, while easy, takes quite a long time and if I could save a step it'd be a big time saver I'm sure!

          My technique courtesy of JoanN

          1. re: NYChristopher

            They lose nothing by being frozen, and since the fat keeps them from being a solid brick, even if you have them in a large container it's easy to pry out as much as you need with a fork. I freeze onions raw, smothered, fried, and caramelized.

            1. re: NYChristopher

              yep, after they are done I let them cool down and them put them all into one container and freeze, as gg said below they are easy to break apart in small amounts whenever you need. My slowcooker book says 6 large onions, 3 tbsp olive oil and cook on high 9-10 hours. I usually do them overnight so I can watch them in the morning when they are near the end. They are pretty forgiving, just fill your crock up with as much as it can take, not really any need to measure, etc...this is time consuming compared to your method, but not very labor intensive....

              1. re: geminigirl

                So, it sounds like you can break some off from the pack (instead of defrosting ALL of them). Then what, aluminum foil and low heat to bing them to the desired temp?

                1. re: NYChristopher

                  Any way you want - oven, skillet, microwave. Not "rocket surgery"! I'm usually stirring them into some other dish, or topping a burger or baked potato.

                  1. re: greygarious

                    yep, what the other gg said:) they are very forgiving....you could also just make into a big batch of onion soup - that was my original plan but I never got around to getting it together...

                    I use them a lot in bringing lunch to work in the winter - if I have leftover rice, lentils, bulgour, etc...I usually throw in a forkfull or two of onions, whatever leftover veggies I have on hand, some cowboy candy (sugary jalapenos) a bit of cheese, etc...and voila, a really tasty hot lunch for the winter months...

          2. re: chowser

            Can you give details, I really want to do a big batch of these to freeze and have on hand, but caramelized onions for some reason have always intimidated me. TIA.

            1. re: GretchenS

              It's really simple: Just put a lot of sliced onions in your slow cooker (I use my food processor to slice) and add salt and pepper and either a stick of butter or a few good glugs of olive oil. Cook on low until they're cooked down. They do throw off a fair amount of liquid, so you can take the lid off and turn it up at the end to cook that off. I also give them a stir around two thirds of the way through, which I find helpful.

              1. re: Caitlin McGrath

                LOL, I love the "few good glugs of olive oil" because that describes it perfectly. If you have problems with too much liquid (I haven't but maybe it's quantity), you can also fold a towel under the lid to catch the moisture.

              2. re: GretchenS

                If you don't have a slow cooker and want a stupid-easy, foolproof method for caramelizing lots of onions at a time, give this oven-roasting method a try. This is the only way I ever make them now. It takes about 2 hours, but you only have to pay attention to them for a couple of minutes every half hour. Scroll down a bit to see the the details:


                1. re: JoanN

                  If you are going to start with butter it's a good idea to clarify it first as the butter solids can burn.

                  1. re: Fritter

                    I can't tell you how many times I've done this; I've never bothered to clarify the butter and I've never had the butter burn.

                    1. re: JoanN

                      and that browned butter flavor is great anyway.

                  2. re: JoanN

                    yum, yum, yum yum yum yum YUM!!! Did this tonight and the results were about a million times better than when I did them in the slow cooker. (Slow cooker took 24 hrs and they ended up tasting more like stewed onions than carmelized ones.)

                    THANK YOU!

                  3. re: GretchenS

                    AKA "onion confit". You may want to do it outside or in your garage, because it takes 12-18 hours, and will stink the house up.

                2. If you slice a bag of onions and keep them frozen in a container or bag, they soften way faster, even from frozen (though even faster if you nuke the frozen slices), than fresh-sliced, because the freezing has done the job of breaking down the cell walls. Keeping frozen onions on hand jump-starts most of my cooking.

                  1. between the water and the microwave, you're mostly steaming the onions, with a little bit of burning. just because the result is soft and brown, it doesn't mean they're caramelized.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: hotoynoodle

                      That was my conclusion the one and only time I made them in the crockpot - they were too much stewed, too little sauteed.

                    2. If it takes you 45 minutes to carmelize onions your either seriously over loading your pan or you need a new stove. Good grief I can grow onions faster than that!

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Fritter

                        This is plain wrong. It does take that long to properly caramelize onions and develop the sugar. If you are doing it much faster than that, you are browning/sauteing, not caramelizing. My method is cheating but it does develop *some* sugar and proper color. If you need truly sweet caramelized onions, this is not the method to use. But for most things I make, it works just fine. Though I agree that I need a new stove... but that's another matter.

                        Also, hotoynoodle, I disagree that I'm steaming the onions, since I am only adding just tiny bits of water to prevent burning and deglaze. I don't add so much water that steam develops. It deglazes and evaporates within seconds. The combination of medium heat saute/steam works remarkably well. And I never said it was just like the real thing... it's a shortcut for busy people that works for most occasions. Don't knock it til you try it.

                        1. re: soniabegonia

                          "This is plain wrong"

                          Uhhm No. It does not need to take 45 minutes and you are not "caramelizing" you are just sweating and/or steaming your onions. You don't add water to caramelize. That dilutes the sugar and just promotes a soft onion not to mention putting them in a bowl and nuking them which in essence steams them a second time.
                          If it works for you great but I assure you it doesn't take me 45 minutes to caramelize even the meanest onion.

                      2. I'm making French Onion soup today for tonights dinner. I saw this and thought perhaps it might give me some new information on the sweating, and caramelizing of the onions.

                        I really don't understand how water is helping your flavor?
                        The other thing, is it's not that difficult to make caramelized onions, I mean really they are low maintenance, and you have taken 25 to 28 minutes or perhaps longer if they scorch...

                        My problem with your method soniabegonia, is that I don't want to take the chance of scorching my onions and this seems rather risky, nor do I think the flavor would be there.
                        Actually you seem to handle them way more than I do as well. I just walk by and give them a stir. They are hurting no one, it's not like I stand over the onions and stir and stir.
                        I guess I must missing something here. Am I?

                        ps, I am so bummed. I can't find my camera... ok long story..But I sliced 5 rather large Spanish onions, then to a olive oiled pan with a half stick of butter on the bottom, tossed the onions on top. Then I added about 2 T of olive oil and a half stick of butter to the top. They are in a low wok like pan, and I added some sea salt, and put the lid on it. Set the timer for 10 mins. Came back and flipped them over.
                        Then I set the timer for 15 minutes. I like to sweat the onions first. Then the caramelizing goes last, this is the time I let the onions get golden.

                        I check the onions about every 15 to 20 mins.

                        9 Replies
                        1. re: chef chicklet

                          You're not missing anything. The water is a substitute for some of the oil/butter to cut out some fat and a deglazing medium. I use only about a teaspoon or so of olive oil for each onion so the bottom of the pan gets quite dry and prone to browning. I just add a splash of water when it starts to scorch a little bit to prevent burning. The brown bits get incorporated and add flavor to the onions but that's from the maillard reaction, not from the water. The water is just a vehicle to deglaze. Sometimes I use white wine, if I have some around. Oh, btw, I use a stainless steel skillet, not non-stick, which doesn't brown well. I agree it's not difficult to make caramelized onions and they are pretty low maintenance, but it does take a long time to get that sugar to develop, and when I get home from work at 7pm it saves me a lot of time and I'm not eating so late. When I have lots of time, like on the weekends, I do the regular method (in fact, I did just that last weekend), although I still don't use quite as much fat.

                          The other thing is, sometimes, I don't want so much sugar development because I've had French onion soup turn out way too sweet for my taste. Maybe some people like that, but I usually want only a hint of sweetness in my onions so my method is perfect for that.

                          1. re: soniabegonia

                            " I don't want so much sugar development"

                            Your not going to "develop" sugar by caramelizing. What ever sugar is present in the onion is in the cell structure irrespective of whether you caramelize the onion or eat it raw. When you saute or caramelize an onion you are releasing and reducing the water content of the onion and breaking down the sugar. Adding water or other liquid back is not a normal step in caramelizing onions.
                            If you want less sweet onions then use appropriate onions or reduce your cook time. Many add sugar and/or salt when caramelizing to speed up the process.
                            Salt helps release the water faster and sugar speeds up the caramelization.
                            When you nuke an onion you are producing trisulfides. Not a good thing by any stretch for caramelized onions.
                            If you "scorch" your pan you are no longer "caramelizing" you are browning/sauteing as you noted up thread. You should never need to de-glaze your pan for caramelizing onions. Adding liquid is defeating what you are trying to accomplish and extending your cook time. Turn down your heat. All you are doing is rapidly browning the onions and then de-glazing to spread the color and finally nuking them so they are soft.

                            1. re: Fritter

                              well, I disagree with your assessment. and of course I know that I'm not actually "producing" sugar by caramelizing - it's just a figure of speech, good grief! And it's funny that you're telling me to turn down the heat after you said upthread that it's taking me too long. I don't think you're getting the full picture of my process and perhaps you will never get it without me showing you. I've explained it as best I can. so you continue to do what you do, and I will continue to cheat this way. thanks for your input.

                              1. re: soniabegonia

                                "it's funny that you're telling me to turn down the heat after you said upthread that it's taking me too long"

                                That's not at all what I said now was it. You seem to feel for what ever reason that no one can "properly" caramelize onions in less than 45 minutes.
                                IMO that's more than a bit over stated and doesn't have a thing to do with the fast cooking method you are presenting here. Surely you can stretch the process out to 45 minutes or longer but it is not necessary.
                                You are spending 20 minutes and a lot of fiddling around to accomplish something that is very easy and should only take another ten minutes to do well with out compromising quality.
                                But hey, if it works for you by all means enjoy!

                                1. re: Fritter

                                  Fritter, will you share specifics of your method? Especially how much onion you are using. I find that a pound of onions yields about a cup of well-caramelized, and I am usually doing 3 to 5 lbs in a 4qt. chef's pan. It takes every bit of an hour. Not looking for a shortcut since I just do it when I'm not straying far from the kitchen, so I don't forget to stir now and then. But I certainly couldn't make it in 30 minutes if I used more than a pound of onions at a time.

                                  1. re: greygarious

                                    I would be glad to share but let me start by saying there is nothing wrong with taking an hour. I just don't agree that 45 minutes is the fastest it can be done. If you are doing 5 pounds at a time I'd say an hour is very reasonable.
                                    I decided to clock the process. I used a 12" heavy SS all-clad deep saute. I cut the normal amount that I usually do at home then weighed them. 1.5 pounds. To that I added approximately 2 Tbs EVOO, a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar. I did not cover the pan and I put them on high for five minutes stirring once or twice. I then reduced the heat to medium for 15 minutes stirring as needed or roughly every five minutes. The last ten minutes I let them simmer. Now these could easily go longer if you wish but I had no problems getting a good product in 30 minutes. I expect I could double this amount and only increase my cook time five minutes or so. For more than that I would need to make further adjustments or use two pans.
                                    My yield was just over 1/2 cup or five ounces including the oil. Remember we staring at 24 ounces plus the oil.
                                    Hope that helps. :-)

                                    1. re: Fritter

                                      Fritter, now those pictures are really useful, and I only wish it weren't so hot in my kitchen right now, or I would caramelized some onions and post a picture as well. We may all have our own definitions of caramelized. For me, your onions look beautiful and brown, but not fully caramelized. For me, caramelized means that there is no moisture remaining in the onions. With a slow heat, the onions are sort of dehydrated with the water being replaced by a bit of the oil/butter, while the onions natural sugars become concentrated.

                                      I find that my definition of caramelized takes forever. Never done it in less than an hour. _sigh_ Such a long time to wait for that tasty goodness.

                                      1. re: smtucker

                                        "We may all have our own definitions of caramelized"

                                        Indeed and that is why I made a point to note that you can take them longer if you wish. Clearly I knew this would come up when I posted the photos. However an onion is caramelized once the sugar comes out and it is evenly brown. Where you take it from there is up to you and what you want to do with them. I found it very difficult to get a good exposure this close up.
                                        There is no water remaining in these. I was left with 1/5 the weight including the oil. The point of this was not to say these are the ultimate or perfect caramelized onions but rather to show what you can easily do in 30 minutes. I could have taken them a good bit further than this in that time frame if I would have cut them on a slicer Vs hand cutting.
                                        In either event I'll wait an hour any day before taking short cuts.

                                        1. re: Fritter

                                          Argggh. I needed to re-load the photos.

                        2. It seems like you do not need to microwave which basically is a steaming method to break cell walls- just put a lid on the pan and sweat it for a while.

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: jen kalb

                            it goes faster in the microwave which is the whole point. also no scorching on the bottom. even with the wet heat created with a lid, there is still some scorching because of the low amount of fat I'm using. the whole point of this exercise is to (1) do it faster (2) do it with a lot less fat (3) still get most of the flavor of traditional method cararmelized onions. no one seems to understand what I'm describing here - sigh....

                            1. re: soniabegonia

                              I understand, I just dont find the fuss of the microwave step worthwhile. I lenjoy the process of frying onions for which sufficient fat is one key - it can always be drained off and reused in savory dishes.

                              I also think that yellow or red onions are infinitely better for this process than the supersweet types , since the yellow and red have a lot more onion flavor and are not as moist.

                              1. re: soniabegonia

                                Re: doing it faster.....why not just do a LOT at one time during a weekend cooking jag and then freeze what you don't need immediately? It's there when you need it - take it out that morning and it'll be defrosted when you get home at 7pm.

                            2. caramelized onions/onion confit:
                              The onions can't color until a huge percentage of their moisture content has evaporated
                              Slicing the onions very thin opens/breaks/exposes more moisture holding cells, lightly salting hastens this breakdown
                              Cooking & stirring over HIGH heat without fats will evaporate the most liquid quickly.
                              {The other reason you'd want this step to go quickly is to avoid the 'sour onion' taste that some confits have. That happens when the onions boil in their own juices...}
                              Add the fat after the onions are limp and barely 'steaming' (less steam = less moisture present).
                              {You do want some moisture to steam thru the fat to create a form of emulsion - the 'richness' of confit. When you get oily caramelized onions/confit its just cooked onions in delicious onion scented fat}
                              Once they begin to color, slow down, lower the heat slightly
                              Stir, stick, stir stick stir...sometimes you can be uber successful in reducing the moisture and may want to add a little water , vinegar or some wine to deglaze/melt the fond - a little.
                              Cook and taste.
                              The moisture level in onions (all produce) changes dramatically thru the seasons and storage conditions so your cooking time will change too.
                              In restaurants, 20 - 30 minutes to make a gallon of caramelized onions is pretty standard.