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Can I/should I pour the liquid off my caramelizing onions?

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I've got a skilletful of onions on the stove to make french onion soup. My recipe recommends a slow, low-medium heat, four-hour caramelization process, covered. I'm an hour in, and there is a ton of liquid in the pan--probably a cup's worth. I noticed the liquid after about half an hour and pulled the lid off the pan. The liquid doesn't seem to be evaporating. Or rather, more liquid is sweating out of the onions than is evaporating off. I am concerned that they will just boil/steam in the liquid instead of getting brown. On the other hand, I don't want to burn them, which is what I usually do when I caramelize in >1 hour.

Can I/should I pour the liquid off?

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  1. I could be way off, but I never carmelize with the lid on.

    1. If your recipe says "... slow, low-medium heat, four-hour caramelization process, covered" then I would suspect it intends for the liquids developed during the process to be used in the french onion soup. But I don't see how much caramelization they could expect with that method. I would expect the recipe to advise you to uncover them after they've "stewed" and brown them - but it's your decision.
      You shouldn't expect the liquids to evaporate very much if the pan's lid fits properly.
      If the onions are supposed to be browned, then stewed, I would expect the recipe to say brown (but be careful not to burn) them in some oil, deglaze the pan, cover and stew. I believe it's always best to follow the recipe first time out - deviate from it as you feel appropriate in the second and subsequent efforts until you achieve the results you expect.

      2 Replies
      1. re: todao

        It doesn't give any hints about what to expect from the onions, hence my fretting. The only hint is to deglaze the onions with red wine before adding to the stock. But as an onion-burner, I'm not familiar with having much in the way of liquid left with caramelized onions. If this is normal, I'll go with it.

        1. re: mejohnst

          Unless you have small bits of browned onion sticking to the bottom of the pan I don't believe there's much to "deglaze" but, as I previously pointed out, I'd recommend following the recipe as close as possible first time out. If you tried to reduce the liquid in the cooked onions you'd need to be very careful, reducing it over low heat, and keep the onions moving so they don't burn; they're very touchy. As your liquids reduce the sugars from the onions that are combined in the liquid can burn very quickly - keep it moving.
          You want to avoid soupe à l'oignon brûlé

        1. They will boil/steam in the liquid, but that's actually not a bad thing, at least in the beginning. The boiling/steaming will help the onions soften up and get ready to become caramelized without burning. Eventually, though, you'll have to remove the lid and let the water boil away. I don't know that it should take 4 hours - I would guess that an hour or so, covered, would be plenty of time for them to soften in their own juices and then you can start the actual process of browning.

          1. Alton says:
            add butter. Once butter has melted add a layer of onions and sprinkle with a little salt. Repeat layering onions and salt until all onions are in the skillet. Do not try stirring until onions have sweated down for 15 to 20 minutes. After that, stir occasionally until onions are dark mahogany and reduced to approximately 2 cups. This should take 45 minutes to 1 hour. Do not worry about burning.