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Oct 13, 2013 01:07 PM

Onion in Indian curries: to brown or not?

Many recipes say to "brown" the onions for that deep sweet flavor, but many others (Kris Dhillon for example) say just make a "base sauce" by simmering onions, cabbage, carrots with water on low heat for an hour, then blending, but that method doesn't brown the onions at all. Help me understand: what's the advantage of slow-simmered onion "base" if it never browns? Don't we want to brown? Is it possible to combine methods somehow, brown AND simmer? How?

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  1. Browning the onions is most often used when making certain kinds of curries, where a deep flavor base in the gravy (along with the requisite spices and chilis) is needed. Indian cuisine is incredibly diverse--plenty of dishes do not need that kind of intensity...and they reflect the amazing complexity of India. And let's keep in mind that "curry" is an Anglo term applied across the board that has little relation to the various dishes that involve sauces...

    6 Replies
    1. re: penthouse pup

      Thanks, good points. But to be specific, when to brown, when not to?

      1. re: SuchTaste

        You can get them brown BEFORE adding other veg and liquid, if you prefer that deeper, more complex flavor. Your choice. Do what tastes best to YOU, even if it's not the authentic regional method for a particular dish. You can even do both, adding more onion after the liquid goes in. The browned onions are likely to break down into almost a puree. If you want them to retain more shape, slice them from pole to pole rather than across the equator.

        1. re: SuchTaste

          It depends on the dish you're making. The ones that are "mughlai" (roughly speaking from northern areas) tend to use cream sauces and browned onions usually don't work in those.
          When you're looking to make a "standard" masala, I'd strongly advise using the browned onions--google "Julie Sahni recipes" and you'll get some excellent information from a very well known writer whose cookbooks remain among the best for a range of different recipes.

          1. re: penthouse pup

            I agree on the Mughlai vs. southern curries. For the browned onion ones, I scoop out the onions, add the other ingredients to the onion-flavored oil, then proceed, adding back the onions later, with more newly-cooked onion bits cooked crunchy on top.

            1. re: pine time

              Just to nitpick, 'Mughlai vs southern' is a strange dichotomy. One of the bastions of Mughlai cuisine is the south Indian city of Hyderabad. Mughlai food isn't day-to-day cuisine anywhere in the country. Browned onions are very welcome in your typical northern dal-bhat-subji (lentils, rice and vegetables) meal. Caramelized onions + lentils, in particular, are a fantastic combination (e.g. in khichdi).

              1. re: Scrofula

                Gotcha--the time I spent in Hyderabad was amazing food-wise. Guess I'm thinking of it as more "central" compared to the more southern coastal areas I've traversed, like Kerala and Goa, but I see your point.

      2. Bear in mind that Kris Dhillon's "thing" is to replicate restaurant/takeaway food. Almost inherently, that is westernised food and the book is written for the western audience who use such restaurants/takeaways. I would not use her recipes for traditional Indian dishes.

        FWIW, when I'm making asian dishes, I generally cook onions slowly (and with the pan lid on) so they soften but do not brown.

        1. I'm Indian, cook Indian food often, grew up eating Indian food, and have had the good fortune of watching a lot of really good Indian cooks cook. I'm sure some very knowledgeable cooks here will disagree with me, but, from my experience, in Indian cooking, when onions are sauteed in oil or ghee, they are rarely browned -- just sauteed to translucence. Although I'm sure there are some dishes where one really must brown onions, it seems to me like a lot of Indian recipe authors say "brown the onions" for "saute the onions", not really meaning for the onions to get brown at all.

          As you say, sometimes recipes call for onions to be boiled, simmered, or pressure cooked with meat, dal or vegetables without sauteing first. This definitely still imparts an oniony flavor to the dish. It's just different from the taste of sauteed onions. If the recipe doesn't call for sauteing onions and you want the dish to taste the way the author intended, please don't saute them anyway. It will really alter the flavor. A great example of a dish where onion is prominent but not sauteed is South Indian pumpkin stew, which is essentially onion, pumpkin, potatoes, green chiles, ginger and water simmered together until the potatoes are cooked, with coconut milk added at the end. It's an amazing dish that's really greater than the sum of it's parts, but it doesn't work all if you saute the onions first.

          When a very dense, browned onion taste is wanted, often it will be added by topping or layering a dish with onions caramelized over low heat for an hour or two until very brown and crunchy. You often see this in Persian-influenced Indian dishes, like biryani. Any well-written recipe should always make it clear when these are the sort of "browned" onions it requires, but there are lots of super unclear, inaccurate, and badly written indian recipes on the Internet.

          Hope this helps, ninrn

          14 Replies
          1. re: ninrn

            Thanks, ninrn, I can tell from your writing that you have a very good feel and sense for the subtleties. What is your personal favorite chicken curry to make, something with boneless breast and a flavorful spicy sauce? Anything you like in particular, and tips? Thank you!

            1. re: SuchTaste

              Thanks, SuchTaste. I think it's hard to do boneless chicken breast as an Indian curry. It has such a delicate flavor and cooks so quickly. Curries need to simmer for a while to meld all the flavors and by then the chicken breast will be tough. Maybe if you do a mild, rich, korma-style sauce and then drop the chicken pieces in at the very end? Of course, then the sauce won't be nice and chicken-y... I'll ask my Mom. Maybe she'll have some ideas.

              My favorite chicken curry is Chicken Nizami. The version I like is very heavy on dried fenugreek (kasuri methi) and kind of a pain to make, but soooo good. Another great dish is Chicken Chettinad, a classic South Indian preparation. I'll try to find some good recipes and will post the links here if I do.

              Best of luck, ninrn

              1. re: ninrn

                Most chicken curries do best with bone-in dark meat, but there are some quick preparations that are flavorful and forgiving to BSCB. I'm thinking here of murgh makhani, chicken karahi and chicken saag. Although I prefer bone-in chicken for it, methi chicken can be made with breast meat as well.

                1. re: JungMann

                  Yes, chicken breast filet is not at all traditional in desi cooking. Bone in, skinless bird is preferred for most recipes.

                  However, it is quite common to find people who use chicken breast in Indian recipes for ease of use or for health/diet purposes.

                  I rarely cook chicken breast in desi recipes, but when I do, I typically brown cubed breast in a little bit of oil, keep it aside, and add it to the gravy once the gravy is cooked or almost cooked. Or I braise the breast cubes in oil and remove the cubes from the gravy, let the gravy finish cooking, and then re-add the cubes at the end of cooking the dish. It is more work, but you have to do this because otherwise you will end up with tough, dry breast or even cubes that shred apart from over cooking.

                  So, breast is doable, but it takes some adaption. Lots of restaurants use boneless breast to suit American preferences, I suppose.

              2. re: SuchTaste

                While I agree with ninrn in general, the following recipe for chicken with cilantro from Madhur Jaffrey uses boneless chicken breast and is exceptional. I've never seen another curry recipe quite like it and it may be my favorite Bengali dish. I've never served it to anything less than raves.


              3. re: ninrn

                I'm also indian, but I'm going to take a different route and say browning really depends in what you are making, I cook mainly punjabi food, and you really need it get a good caramelization on the onions to get the flavors right. You can't get the right flavor to your chicken or rajma if you don't brown. Other dishes like. Paneer makhani don't need the onions browned. For Dals, sometimes I brown them sometimes I just lightly sauté. It really depends on the recipe and the region whose food you are cooking.

                1. re: boogiebaby

                  I agree with boogiebaby...depends on what you are making...either way the onions should cook thoroughly.

                  Browning the onions is integral in certain regional types of South Asian dishes for many dishes---you will find browned onions in types of Punjabi cooking, Kayasth cooking of U.P., lots of regional Muslim cooking, to give some examples. (Indian cooking is so very diverse, even in one region you will have different styles of cooking based on religion, caste, community, etc.)

                  Much of what we in the US know as Indian food in restaurants are Americanized restaurant versions of Punjabi and U.P.-Punjab Muslim dishes (labeled "Mughlai")...though restos often use these creamy sauces of onions that have been blended before even being well sauteed, let alone browned, and then add loads of cream...very unlike home cooking.

                  But in regions that use browning in specific dishes, if you don't do it, you are getting the dish wrong. The onions should be fried until the lose all of their moisture and turn golden-reddish. If you remove them from oil, they shrivel and crisp. I actually fry large amounts of browned onions, freeze, and keep on hand for daily cooking.

                  A few dishes where browned onions are integral, just off of the top of my head: istew dopyaza, gravy for all types of biryani, base of meat pullao, garnish for meat pullao, qorma (except for white qorma), dam ka qeema, bhuna gosht, haleem, nihari...

                  A few dishes where I cook the onions till they are just turning golden but not browning: tamaatar ka saalan (goat in tomatoey gravy), karhai gosht, regular (not fancy) qeema, most daily vegetable dishes (I cannot think of one where I brown the onions, off of the top of my head), karhi, white qorma, most of my daals (I actually don't brown for raajma, I use a similar wet masala was I do for daal makhni or simple chhola), most of my daals.

                  Some dishes I use onions that are past just turning golden but not well browned: many daily meat saalans (curries) like alu gosht, paalak gosht, daal gosht, where if they were fully browned the onions would make the dish too sweet because these dishes are very simple and don't have a lot of ingredients.

                  Some dishes where I cook the onion only until the rawness is gone, but don't allow to color: poha, upma, desi style omelette...can't think of others right now, maybe more will come to my mind later.

                  Knowing how your onions should look in the early stages of a dish is very important to achieve the right taste at the end.

                  This is all my daily cooking which tends to be North West subcontinental (with some exceptions), plus some Hyderabadi for variety.

                  Keep in mind that Indian cooking is very diverse...some people don't even eat onions for religious reasons and so this is not even a question in their particular type of Indian cuisine.

                  Then you have some regional types of Bengali cooking where I have seen people grind the onions to a paste which may or may not be browned.

                  I am not familiar with Kris Dhillon (AFAIK Dhillon is a Punjabi Jatt name, though) but I have to say that boiling carrots and cabbage and onions together to make a base sauce sounds very unlike any desi cooking that I have ever seen. What dish is this supposed to be for?

                  1. re: luckyfatima

                    luckyfatima, most sincere thanks for your thoughtful and incredibly helpful post. Though I'm not the OP, I found your post via a link shared in another thread. You are a treasure and we're fortunate to have you in our CH community! I actually just ordered Madhur Jaffrey's A Taste of India based on your endorsement on your profile page. Thank-you.

                  2. re: boogiebaby

                    I think boogiebaby and luckyfatima are right, but you were asking for some sort of general rule, and I was trying to come up with one, so I think, in that sense, I might be right, too. It's just that in such a broad and varied cuisine, there aren't that many rules of thumbs (or maybe there are just way too many thumbs, each with its own rule).

                    It may also depend on how one defines browning. I didn't think of sauteing to golden or reddish translucency, as opposed to whitish translucency, as browning, but maybe it is. And a lot of Indian recipes really do say brown when they mean saute, and even say onions when they mean shallots, which adds to the confusion.

                    The very brown onions luckyfatima describes are exactly what I'm talking about when I mention the crunchy caramelized kind. We make those in large batches, too, because they take so very long to make and smell up the whole house. They're lovely to have on hand for all kinds of cuisine, though -- sandwiches and burgers, Middle Eastern food, pizza, tacos, even crepes. Good to knock out a batch while there are still some days that are warm enough to keep the windows open.

                  3. re: ninrn

                    i'm with ninrn's explanation.

                    i'm not indian, but for many years have cooked from a number of indian cookbooks, and rarely (if ever) have i seen instructions to brown onions (unless it is the caramelized onion to go on top of a dish, as mentioned by ninrn).

                    cook till translucent is what i have seen almost 100% of the time. i'm not saying punjabi cooking does not "brown" onions as mentioned by boogiebaby. i apparently have not made punjabi dishes that called for browning.

                    1. re: alkapal

                      Here's a good blog post about browning onions -- she (and Madhur Jaffrey) explain it nicely. Again, I do think it's a regional thing -- I can't imagine having a sambhar with well browned onions, but can't imagine Punjabi style rajma with lightly browned onions. The tastes would be completely off on both!


                      1. re: boogiebaby

                        Nice link. So is this the same as browning to all the way to a dark reddish brown, like the deeply caramelized, crunchy onions I was talking about in my post? If so, I finally know why my rajma is never quite right.

                        1. re: ninrn

                          Not quite to that level, but you want them nicely browned. I puree my onions for rajma, and fry the puree. It'll start sticking to the pan after the water evaporates, and you have to keep scraping it, and maybe add a couple tablespoons of water 2-3 times to help deglaze it. Keep cooking until it's the color of a weak iced tea almost. It takes a good 20 minutes on medium heat, if not longer. If I am going to stand there and babysit it, I'll crank it up to high and cook it, but it'll start burning if you don't keep stirring every minute or so. If you burn it, your rajma will be bitter.

                          1. re: boogiebaby

                            I also do a puree of onions, tomatoes,garlic, ginger, some oil, a few whole spices. I then brown (medium brown) chopped onions, then remove them from the oil & set aside. The blender puree gets fried in the onion-flavored oil till it lightly browns and the oil separates. Then the meat (on bone) is added, along w/ some ground spices (freshly toasted whole spices, which I grind). The separately fried, browned onion go in towards the end. All this gives levels of spicing and flavors.

                  4. punjabi chicken and meats gets browned onions - it was always my job in my mom's kitchen....
                    vegeetables and daals, sometimes sauteed

                    1. To add more 'masala' to these well detailed replies, down south in Kerala, where I'm from, the preference is for shallots, not onions for alot of the meat/fish dishes. And not the big fat shallots of the west but small rounded ones, a bit bigger than marbles. Mostly sautéed till translucent then other ingredients added or fried to a soft/crispy to top off dishes. Onions are reserved for chicken dishes or biriyanis or North Indian curries.
                      Can't imagine how simmering onion, carrots & cabbages produces anything but a wishy washy gravy!! The easiest thing to do is cook slow till translucent, add spices, veggies etc & liquids if you want the onions distinctly identifiable like a simple tomato curry. For a thicker brown gravy, saute onions, ginger-garlic paste low heat, till onions soften and brown well, add your spice powders and saute well. at this point, add your other ingredients or grind the mixture and return to pan and then add rem ingredients. In any case, with Indian food, ground rules are broad, flexible, adaptable and so dependent on community, place, religion that it's crazy different from home to home!