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problems with caramelized onions

i always end up with a bunch of crappy dried up pieces and some pieces that aren't very brown. i start with about a tablespoon of olive oil and a head of a large onion. heat the oil up medium then once i put the onions in turn it down to low.

is it the way i'm cutting them? too thin? not even enough?

not enough oil?

any suggestions?

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  1. A Table spoon of oil does sound skimpy.
    Are you slicing them in fairly even sized slices?
    Stirring often?
    I always start with very high heat until they lose most of their water and then tone the heat down a bit but not to low.

    7 Replies
    1. re: chefj

      yes, very even slices. stirring occasionally as suggested in the recipe.

      heres a picture of the mess.

      1. re: trolley

        They do look a bit dry.
        The pan your using looks to be very thin which makes for very uneven heating and such a generously sized pan is not really called for in this application. You want the onions to steam and simmer a bit before they start browning.

        1. re: trolley

          When they reach this point, dry & leaning towards burnt, add some water and deglaze, stir gently and then add some fat (oil, butter, lard) lower the heat, & continue until deep amber.

          1. re: trolley

            I'll be honest.... your slices don't look even to me based on your picture. You even have chunks of onion where you didn't separate the layers.

            I slice mine in half from pole to pole, then slice around the equator making sure that each strand is separated before going into the pan. I don't use much fat at all... just a bit of olive oil, but I cook, stirring frequently, it in a heavy pan, COVERED over low heat for about 45 minutes and they come out great every single time - a perfect mahogany, but no black bits and no white. About half way through, I salt and add a bit of sugar. I never have a problem with them sticking or burning. It doesn't matter if you slice them thinner or thicker... that just changes the cook time. But they all have to be the same and they all need to be separated.

            1. re: gardencook

              if you cook them covered, they are steaming.

              1. re: hotoynoodle

                Yes, initially they are steaming. If you then take the cover off the liquid slowly evaporates leaving evenly cooked onion and fat. The onions then cook further and brown evenly. This method always seems to produce the most even, sweet and dark onions.

                Edit: didn't see this was not in response to my post. The info is still valid though.

                1. re: hotoynoodle

                  Yes, they do steam for quite a while, but they cook and get color on them too. You don't want them to dry out too soon. Still, at the end, when you evaporate all of the liquid they caramelize up *perfectly* with no burning and you achieve an even mahogany color. The problem occurs when they get color before they're all cooked. Plus, with this method, you do not have to be there at the stove for the whole process, just stir occasionally until the very end, when you take the lid off and are getting the final color on them. I've been doing it this way for decades now and they always come out just right.

          2. I also start with higher heat and then once they give up some water turn the heat down.

            I also use a little more oil than you do and add some butter and salt to help break down the cells.

            That also seems like a small amount of onions for that size pan (for caramelizing). You may be getting hot spots that are contributing to your uneven result (just a thought). From the pic they don't look horrible (not everything translates in pics) and I'd say only 1/2 way to really caramelized . . . .

            I'll be curious what other suggest.

            1. My method is to start with 1 tablespoon butter and half T of olive oil for one larger onion. I slice the onion into uniform 1/8" slices. Once the fats are up to heat I add the onion and a very small pinch of salt, stir and then cover. I'll cook covered for about 10 minutes stirring once or twice. I'll then take cover off and cook uncovered until browned. I normally crank up the heat at the end and stir constantly. This normally turns out sweet browned or carmelized onions, depending on how dark you take them.

              1. Another vote for not enough fat. I do a mix of butter and olive I start the onions on medium heat and then go to low after about 5 minutes. After 20 I add some white wine.

                1. I vote for too small a pan. I am often quite stingy with the oil, but have a very overcrowded pan to start.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: CanadaGirl

                    any time you cook veggies in an overcrowded pan they will be steaming. many on here seem to be confused about cooking onions for this. they shouldn't be steaming. you cannot be fat-phobic and should start with a generous amount of oil in the pan. bigger pieces, like rings or slices work better than a dice. high heat til they start to break down and then at a very low heat to finish. you can add butter in bits along the way at the low heat. they can take an hour to do properly. do not add other liquid til they are finished.

                  2. Cook's Illustrated advises slicing from pole to pole. This keeps them from breaking down too fast.
                    Preheat your pan for a good 10 minutes over medium heat, use more oil, stir nearly continually until the onion starts to release some liquid. If you notice uneven cooking, add a couple of ounces of water or wine and stir to deglaze. Caramelize over medium-low heat, covering the pot for at least 20 minutes, stirring a couple of times, then uncover, stir again and continue until the desired level of brown is reached, stirring every few minutes. Julia Child suggests a little sugar to promote browning.

                    Alternatively, use JoanN's method of caramelizing in a roasting pan in the oven, which doesn't require as much attention.

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: greygarious

                      they are all dry. the picture is at 35 minutes of cooking at low temp. did i cut from pole to pole? is that stem to head? ok, covering the pan, check! more fat, check! some liquid! there's always a next time!

                      1. re: trolley

                        The reason I cover the pan is to avoid adding liquid. There is lots of moisture in onions to begin with. The lid just traps a bit of that liquid and reintroduces it into the initial cooking. This allows the onions to cook through evenly and begin the browning. I start the onions on med, turn down to med low when uncovered and then kick it up to med high for last couple minutes as I stir constantly

                        1. re: gbque

                          Here's a couple of pics of some caramelized onions I did a few weeks ago.
                          I use 2-3 large or 5-6 small onions,some oil a good thick bottom pan,high heat to start then lower the heat,throw in a nice knob of butter let it go for an hour or 2 stir often.If they start to stick and burn a bit,deglaze with water and scrape the fond...

                          1. re: petek

                            wow! now that's impressive. what kind of pan are you using? looks like debuyer?

                            1. re: trolley

                              Yup.it's a 12" Debuyer carbonne plus.Best pans I've ever used...

                            2. re: petek

                              That's a food porn centerfold.

                              1. re: Veggo

                                veggo- so that would make the pictures of my failed caramelized onions?....hehe

                                1. re: Veggo

                                  "That's a food porn centerfold."
                                  Gracias.. :-D

                        2. Im not sure what type of final result you are looking for. Is it evenly browned slices, as for french onion soup? or for a mass of tasty and slightly crispy caramelized onions such as would top, say, indian or middle eastern food?

                          Here are my suggestions:
                          (1) slice onion thinly and evenly, first in half top to botton and then slice each half in thin rings, again end to end, not crosswise.
                          (2) Using a good heavy pan (I have my reliable aluminum caldero) fry in a goodly quantity of oil, ghee (clarified butter) or a blend stirring frequently.. You should have some oil left over in the pan at the end.
                          (3) I usually make the indian style onions, which are cooked in an open pan at med-high heat For these, the degree of browing is somewhat variable, the goal is relatively thorough browning to a point shy of bitterness, Typically process takes 20-30 min.
                          (4) To obtain a softer, evenly browned product, a bit of water (which spreads the brown coloring and conduces to softening, and a somewhat lower temperature will work. People have suggested some low and slow methods for which you can use a cover and very low heat, , but if you want to complete your project, relatively rapidly, you will have to be more attentive and stir and add water as needed til the desired appearance is obtained..
                          If you want a softer product with a more even

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: jen kalb

                            There is no problem with cutting them either direction or dicing for that matter as long as you do not need them to remain in whole slices.

                          2. All good advice so far. The dried-out bits you're seeing may be the very thin outer layer(s), which you should just discard. They will never caramelize. Just peel them off and get rid of them. After years of trying to salvage as much of an onion as I could, I finally realized it's not worth it.

                            I never use oil, just butter, and not a lot, less than one tablespoon for a full 12" pan. To me, the oil causes the onions to sizzle and "fry" more than I like. Also, add a little salt (and pepper, if you like) at the beginning. This helps draw out the moisture, which you need for them to caramelized.

                            I always use baseball- or softball-sized white onions, and I always cut them into rings, which I then generally cut in half. 1/8th of an inch seems thin to me. While I've never measured them, just looking at a ruler, I'm guessing I cut the rings closer to 1/4 of an inch. You need to use the really fat onions, because thin onions have thin layers, which will just shrivel up and dry out.

                            Medium heat turned down to low is fine. Good caramelized onions will take at least 45 minutes. While I don't stir them constantly, I listen and stir them occasionally, stirring more frequently as the process progresses. Also, stir them as they give up their moisture. You don't want a dry pan, but you don't want the onions swimming in water so that they steam.

                            Good luck! Caramelized onions are oh, so yummy on so many things!

                            1. I'll tell you how I do my carmalized onions it is a long process but it definitely works like a charm.

                              I take a bunch of regular onions( usually 6 or 7)--sometimes I use vidalias, sometimes, I just use regular yellow onions. Anyway I peel them then slice them thinly on my mandoline. I like the mandoline b/c it produces uniform slices.

                              Then I take a bit of olive oil---maybe two tablespoons--that's all and drizzle it in the inside of a large skillet (large).---and a tablespoon of butter. .It'll look like too many onions are in the skillet, but they cook down. I season with salt and pepper and then I take my tablespoon and sprinkle two tablespoonsful of Brown Turbinato sugar over the onions...it gives the finished product a nice sweetness, but not TOO sweet and mixed with the salt, it's just really nice. Anyway, I turn the heat up to high for about 15 minutes, but keep an eye on the onions--kinda like babysitting a roux. Now--and this is important...you don't want the onions to dry out--so add water, about a cup at a time as the onions cook down. After 15 minutes, I turn the head to medium....and I continue to babysit. This whole process takes over an hour because as the onions cook down, you want to make sure they stay moist and not dry. Adding the water will not reduce any flavor in the longrun. I really carmelize them till they are like a confit..and they are so sweet and delicious. It does take a long time and you really need to be patient. I don't care what any cookbook or any chef on TV says---you need a LONG time to do this. Hope this helps in some way.

                              1. Doesn't solve your problem, but I just tried caramelizing onions in my slowcooker; it worked very well. I sliced up 6 large yellow onions, stirred in a bit of salt and a couple tbsp butter. Turned slowcooker on high and gave it a stir once they were warm to distribute the butter and make sure they were pretty level. I ignored them for 9 hours and they were great. There were a few burnt pieces stuck to the side, but that wasn't a big deal.

                                Now to enjoy my onions...

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: CanadaGirl

                                  i've heard about that method and feel like i should try it. did you slice them pole to pole as everyone suggests?

                                  1. re: trolley

                                    I did slice them pole to pole. About 4 hours in I didn't think it was working, but I stuck it out and they are great.

                                2. Do you put salt at the starting?

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: raisa

                                    i salt about 10 min in and sugar about 20 min in...

                                  2. They always brown better for me when I use butter, for some reason. Also, an Italian told me once that you must add a pinch of sugar at the beginning--that something about the sugar helps the onions' sugars start to come out and caramelize. I have no scientific backing for this, but it does seem to help start the browning process sooner.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: mejohnst

                                      "Also, an Italian told me once that you must add a pinch of sugar at the beginning--"

                                      those wacky I-Talians what will they think of next?? :-D

                                      No need to add sugar,what's the rush? let em caramelize naturally..

                                      1. re: petek

                                        Either sugar or salt (or both) helps to draw out the moisture to help them carmelize more quickly and evenly.

                                        1. re: Jzone

                                          onions have a lot of natural sugar. you don't need to add any.

                                          most of these "tips" involve speeding up whats should be a very slow process.

                                      1. As some of the other posts have suggested, I am a huge fan of low heat, long cook time for my carmelized onoins. I slice in half, and cut pole to pole. I use this in my Onion Soup, as a sandwhich topping, in Bacon Jam, in quiches, etc, etc.... The pole to pole cut makes for very even slices, and the fibres are stronger, resulting in a very good mouth feel.

                                        I fill the dutch oven with the sliced onoins, 2 tbs of butter, and a bit of Salt and Pepper. Medium Low heat until I hear some action (slow bubbling), stirring every few minutes. Once the onions have released enough water to bubble, I turn to low, and stir every 15-20 minutes or so. This goes on for about 5 hours, maybe 8, depending on the day.

                                        Yes, its a long process, and its absolutely no good if you want it done quickly. But the smell throughout the house, and the relative lack of involvement required means I can do yardwork, housework, work work, watch a movie.....anything around the house. And of course enjoy 4 or 5 Crown Floats. This is a perfect winter Saturday or Sunday. The smell in the house, and the payoff at the end.

                                        The onions freeze very well, so Ive been known to have two ductch ovens bubbling away on the stove.

                                        The picture is after 5 hours or so. Heaven in a Le Creuset.

                                        1. One way of speeding up the process without salt or sugar, or risking scorching, is to freeze the onions after slicing pole to pole. This ruptures the cell walls. You can thaw and drain before cooking, but even cooking straight from the freezer will be faster than starting with just-sliced.

                                          By the way, a pound of raw onion yields a cup of caramelized. When I make them, I use a whole 5 pound bag. I remove some of the onions at the just-wilted stage and freeze them in half-cup amounts, to be used in cooking other dishes since sauteeing the onions is the most time-consuming part of preparing many entrees.

                                          1. The key to perfect caramelized onions is to not stir. Onions have an abundance of water in them. When you put them into hot oil over medium high heat the water and the oil immediately react. As long as you are hearing noise in that pan, the onions will not burn. Sugar begins to caramelize at 325 degrees and can only do so with the absence of water. So when that frying noise begins to subside that means that the water has cooked off and the onions are now in contact with that 325 degree pan and will begin to brown, then give it a stir and it will get loud again because you have now put the wet onions from the top into the hot oil. Keep repeating this method until the onions begin to caramelize. then you can lower the heat a bit and keep an eye on it. AS for your question about dense pizza dough in another post. You were missing a key ingredient in making dough. SUGAR. Yeast is a living microorganism in a dormant state. The environment must be perfect for yeast to do their job. The water temperature must be between 110-115 degrees and there must be sugar (2 tsp) in the water with the yeast to feed on. You will see it bloom within 5-8 minutes. So put your temped water into the bowl of a stand mixer, add the sugar and yeast and wait 5-8 minutes. then with the mixer running on medium low speed (#3 or 4) add 1-2 tbsp olive oil, a pinch of salt and gradually begin adding your flour.( about 3-4 cups). Add 3 cups and see what it looks like. If too wet add a little more at a time. It should be tacky but not sticky. turn it out onto a floured work surface and knead, pushing with the heal of your palm for about 6-8 minutes (adding more flour as needed). then place into a oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Place into a proofing oven or in a warm place for at least 45 minutes. Once risen, punch dough down, divide into 2 equal portions and shape back into a ball. Place on a sheet pan or try with several inches between them. brush with oil and cover with plastic. After about 35-45 minutes it will rise a second time. Now you gently coat with flour, shape into a pie and proceed with your toppings. A good pizza stone always helps too. bake 500 degrees for 8-10 minutes. Bon Apetit.

                                            4 Replies
                                            1. re: ABite2Eat

                                              so now that you have recipes for perfect pizza dough and caramelized onions,all you need are some figs some creamy,stinky gorgonzola a bit of fresh rosemary and yer good to go... :-D

                                              1. re: petek

                                                petek, with all this advice i'm having performance anxiety. haha. i'm afraid i'll screw it all up!

                                                1. re: trolley

                                                  make any recipe your own. Tweak it here and there adjust seasoning and enjoy.Most great recipes were derived from mistakes!!

                                                  1. re: ABite2Eat

                                                    "make any recipe your own. Tweak it here and there adjust seasoning and enjoy.Most great recipes were derived from mistakes!!"

                                                    Exactly! Great advice,what's the worst that could happen?
                                                    As the great Wayne Gretzky once said" You miss 100% of the shots you don't take"

                                            2. The maillard reaction and caramelization are affected by Ph. Adding a TINY bit of baking soda changes the Ph and can cut cooking time in half without changing the quality of the end result at all if you insist on hurrying the process.


                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: twyst

                                                Interesting video. I always associated the maillard reaction with the "browning" of proteins (e.g. meats, eggs, dairy) and I always assumed the caramelization of onions was a sugar process. Did a little wiki research and learned something new.


                                              2. Has anyone tried caramelizing onions in the oven. If you started them in a cold oven and brought it to 350-375 after tossing the onions in some oil and a speck of sugar, shouldn't the even distribution of heat alleviate the need for frequent stirring. I use this method for browning
                                                roux for gumbo (courtesy of Alton Brown). Shouldn't it work equally as well for onions?

                                                1 Reply