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Jan 22, 2012 04:59 PM

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.