Inner Peace From a Caramelized Onion
The joy that comes from cutting onions.
Every time I cook onions, I think of the 1992 movie "Mr. Saturday Night" starring Billy Crystal and David Paymer. It was Crystal's directorial debut, and it got Paymer an Oscar nod. Crystal gave an interview detailing how the set designers made their kitchen set feel like a multigenerational kitchen. They cooked onions on it and even rubbed them into the walls. The smell of cooking onions triggered the actor's memories of warmth, home, and family.
Caramelization transforms onions from sulfurous tear-inducing Shrek apples into something sweet and rich. It's the essence of cooking. It's the transformation of a raw ingredient into something more.
There are so many things you can do with the end result. Soups, stews, dips, dressings, sauces, and pasta can all be improved with the addition of caramelized onions. More than that, finding perfection in a simple, singular task like caramelizing onions is an excellent path to inner peace.
What follows is a roadmap that I follow at least once, if not twice a week, towards inner peace. I focus on this process, and in the end, I have something that feeds my body and my soul.
The science is simple. Caramelization begins with removing water from the onion (onions are about 89% water). This softens them. Then you're breaking down large sugar molecules you can't taste into simple sugars that you can taste.
Now we're talking about pyrolysis. This is the process of turning polysaccharides (the most abundant food carbohydrate) into things such as monosaccharides or oligosaccharides (Wikipedia). This chemical process is the product of heat, and the magic starts above 212°F (the boiling point of water).
But proper culinary caramelization is also about finesse.
SELECTING THE ONION
You can use any kind of onion. I prefer yellow, but I also do sweet, white, or red, depending on what I have on hand.
Yellow onions are fun because if you do a before and after test, they are two different beasts. Yellow onions also tend to have that "hot" sulfurous taste before and become the sweetest. If you want to explore all the things onions can do, this is the one that gives you the broadest spectrum. White onions are very similar, but their one big drawback is that they spoil faster.
Red onions are my favorite onion to eat, either raw or pickled. They aren't quite as hot as yellow in the natural state, but they will be comparable in flavor after caramelization. The color, though, will be a muddy purple. Some people like the color variation; others do not. Their color is one reason why they're so popular in their pickled state. There they turn vibrant purple.
Sweet onions don't benefit as much from caramelization. You can do it, but it's not as complex or interesting.
Generally speaking, the stinkier the onion, the sweeter the result.
CUTTING THE ONION
I'm not going to tell someone "the correct way" to cut an onion because it depends on who you are and what you like. But I'm a "pole to pole" kind of person when it comes to caramelized onions. I cut along the ribs. This keeps the onions sturdier in the cooking process. If you slice your onions latitudinally, you wind up with a cooked product that is a bit more mealy.
Some people like a thin-skinned Golden Delicious in July (IYKYK). I am not that guy.
But I'm a firm believer that there is no one right way to cook or eat. You find the right path for you. The pole-to-pole piece gives me the texture of slippery noodles, as opposed to a mush. I like noodles.
That said, I've also been know to rock the dice when caramelizing.
The important thing is consistency because pyrolysis is a harsh master. If you have some thin and thicker onions, the thin ones will burn before the thick ones get cooked well. Sometimes I like that because the burnt pieces add a slight bitterness. But generally speaking, I want everything to brown at the same rate. Keep in mind, the thinner your onions, the more you will need to watch and stir them.
CHOOSING YOUR FAT
The simple fact is that you can also achieve pyrolysis in your microwave. Put your onions and a pinch of salt in a microwave-safe bowl, cover it and go for 15 minutes. Then take it out and drain the water.
Mix in some fat. Add a small pinch of baking soda (which promotes browning), and throw it in for 10-minute chunks. Then check and stirring until you get your desired results.
As for the fat… technically, you don't need it, but here's why you might want it. Both fat and alcohol (which we'll touch on below) carry flavor. They bond to the chemicals that we taste and smell and help concentrate them.
Of course, the fat has flavor too. Do you want your onions buttery? Rich like olive oil? Maybe you want that salty flavor of bacon fat? Chicken fat, or schmaltz, might be my favorite because it gives everything you add it to that "Costco rotisserie" glow.
YouTuber Helen Rennie has a genuinely fantastic video on the process of caramelizing onions. She insists it's better to have too much fat in your pan, which you can drain off at the end.
I tend towards less fat, sometimes using no fat, only stock. Some call this "water-frying," but really, it's boiling). Hot fat can get really hot and can speed up the process. But you will have to keep your eye on things if you want to avoid bitter burnt bits in with your buttery brown bits.
By the way, if you want to slow down the process at any point, you could put a lid on it. This keeps the water in, re-condensing it, and this can actually lower the temperature a bit.
SALT: WHEN AND HOW TO USE IT
Salt is a miracle. It unquestionably makes a thing taste better. It also has certain qualities that we're looking for. It draws out water, which we want in a caramelized onion.
If you salt too early in the process, the water will actually slow down the start of the cooking process. Yet, at the same time, salt takes time to do its magic, so many will tell you to add it as early as possible.
I still haven't found the perfect point, but I'll keep you posted.
Salt is also crucial to caramelized onions for two reasons. Salt suppresses bitter flavors and enhances sweet ones. It makes your final product a better one. My one piece of advice; salt more than you think you need, but not so much that it tastes "salty."
Cook often enough, and you'll understand what that means.
HOW TO DEGLAZE
This is my favorite step, and it's the one that I am always, always, constantly experimenting with.
In the US, "Fond" is all the tasty bits that have adhered themselves to the bottom of the pan. In France, the culinary term "Fond" actually refers to the act of deglazing a pan which becomes the "foundation" (literal translation) of a pan sauce.
Here you can kind of use it both ways.
Once your onions are where you want them, pouring in the liquid will allow you to scrape tasty bits off your pan. Then the liquid marries all the levels of flavor and lowers the temperature of the pan. So, you're kind of turning these silky sweet and savory onions into a sort of thick and chunky "onion sauce."
To help add complexity, you can go in a few directions.
Wine, especially red wine, is a good one because alcohol carries flavor similar to how fat does. It adds depth, and let's be honest, it feels very French, which feels culinary… "correct."
Vinegar, which is made from wine, is also a good one. The vinegar itself can have a wine-like flavor. Plus, its acid helps cut through the richness and the sweetness. It makes for something more well-rounded. Personally, I have a bottle of French raspberry vinegar that I often use for this very purpose.
Stock. If you're avoiding wine and don't have a vinegar you like (white can be too sharp), you can use an animal or vegetable stock. It cleans the pan, marries flavors, and adds some multidimensional flavor. Not too much, though, or you'll get soup.
Lastly, I love soy sauce and fish sauce. I always use them in tandem with the above. Soy Sauce is salt, but it's also depth. It's aged, and that brings a specific character to the onions that are hard to get otherwise. The fish sauce also brings age and funk. Onions like funk. I like funk. Just remember: adding these make your caramelized onions neither vegetarian nor gluten-free.
So now you have a whole mess of caramelized onions. What now?
Well, you can put them on any sandwich or mix them with almost any milk product to make a dip, spread, or sauce.
You can throw them together with some thyme, a touch of white wine, Worcestershire sauce, and beef stock to make "instant" French onion soup.
One place I rely on it is in tomato sauce. At one point, I was putting in a pinch of sugar to enhance the sweetness of out-of-season tomatoes. Now I blitz caramelized onions in the blender and add that to my sauce for an even better effect.
As delicious and valuable as they are, it is the process, exploring the variations, and finding new uses for the end product, that put me at peace every time.