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Turn Onions Into a Flavor Powerhouse!

Caramelized onions…

sounds fancy, right?

Chances are, you have enjoyed these sweet, savory, tender onions on a burger, steak or sandwich at a restaurant and thought, “wow, those have great flavor!”  But unless you are an avid cook, you may not have given any thought to making these at home.  Believe me, there was a time we would have thought…“you have got to be kidding, I am not a chef — there is no way I can make those!”

We are here to tell you - this is not the case!  Caramelized onions may sound gourmet, but if we can do it, anyone can do it!  And, EVERY time we make them, we think "why don't we do this more often?!"

Why caramelize onions?

Caramelizing onions is as simple as slicing onions and cooking them low and slow.  This releases the onions’ natural sugar, which turns them into a flavor powerhouse!  They are perfect for sandwiches, soups, stir fries, burgers, casseroles, baked potatoes, pizzas, quesadillas, sautéed greens, salads and more!

So, how do you cook caramelized onions?

All you need is a pan, some oil or butter, a few onions and about 45 minutes.  (Don’t let the “time” thing discourage you — and stay tuned, we will also tell you how to cook these delicious onions in the slow cooker!).


There are 3 simple steps:

  1. Slice the onions.  One-quarter inch (1/4") slices work well.
  2. Place them in a large pan with about 2 Tbsp of oil or butter, or a combination of both.
  3. Cook over medium heat, stirring every 5-10 minutes until they are golden brown, tender and sweet…about 40-45 minutes.


A few things to keep in mind:


  • Any onion will caramelize - yellow onions are probably the most versatile, but you can also use white or red onions.  Caramelized red onions are absolutely fantastic on pizzas and sandwiches, or in salads!
  • Not too thin.  Don’t cut them too thin…about 1/4 inch, which helps give them some substance so they are less likely to burn.  If you are cooking them in the slow cooker, thinly sliced is fine.
  • Your choice:  you can use either oil, butter, or a combination of both.
  • Don’t crowd the pan!  For a 12 inch pan, about 2 large onions is perfect.  If you cook too much at one time you will crowd the pan and the onions will just steam (and not caramelize).
  • Stainless steel or cast iron are ideal.  You can use any pan, but stainless steel and cast iron will help you maximize the flavor by allowing the sugars to build up on the bottom of the pan (which you can then deglaze).
  • Deglaze!  If the onions start to stick or scorch, don’t hesitate to de-glaze the pan.  Simply pour about 1/4 cup of chicken or vegetable broth, wine, beer, vinegar or water in the pan, stir and scrape the bottom of the pan.  The onions will absorb the liquid as they continue to cook.  Plus, the sugars that get stuck to the bottom of the pan provide an even richer flavor when they are reabsorbed into the onions.
  • Be patient!  Caramelized onions do take a little time to cook.  You want to give the onions time to release their natural sugars and to turn rich brown and tender (but not mushy).  Confession time...several of our recipes call for cooking the onions for 15-20 minutes.  While they will start to develop a rich flavor in this time, to truly get the caramelized texture and flavor, 40-45 minutes is even better!
  • Make them ahead of time.  A great way to make mealtime even easier is to make caramelized onions beforehand — they will stay good in the refrigerator for at least a week.
  • They also freeze perfectly.  Just remember to freeze in small portions so you can grab and thaw just the amount you need.  (Try freezing in 1/2 cup increments for burgers or sandwiches, or in 1 cup increments for pizzas or quesadillas).


Cry me a river!

A coaching tip on onions wouldn’t be complete without addressing the issue of the tears involved in cutting onions.  These tears are caused by the vapors that are released from the enzymes of the onion when it’s cut.  These vapors are attracted to the moisture in your eyes.  So, unless you feel like it is time for a good cry, there are some tricks to avoid the dreaded tears that go along with cutting onions:

  • Use a very sharp knife.  It will help you quickly and efficiently cut the onions because a dull knife will just crush the onion therefore releasing more vapors.
  • Wear goggles!  You will look crazy in the kitchen, but you shouldn’t cry as long as you wear tight-fitting goggles that fit your face.
  • Freeze the onion.  Freezing the onion for about 5 minutes before cutting is supposed to inhibit the release of these eye-irritating vapors (but don’t freeze it too long or it will be difficult to cut).
  • Turn on the fan.  Cutting under a vent (such as the oven vent) or near a fan can help blow away the vapors and keep them from reaching your eyes.  Just make sure to warn anyone downwind!


Slow Cooker Magic!

Another trick to cooking caramelized onions…using the magic of the slow cooker!  The key to caramelized onions is low and slow which, as we know, is the slow cooker’s purpose in life!

It's as easy as thinly slicing 6 medium-sized onions and adding them to a greased slow cooker, along with 2 Tbsp olive oil or butter (or a combination) and 1/2 tsp salt.  Cook on low for about 10 hours, or even up to 12 hours...however long it takes to achieve the caramelized flavor and consistency (every slow cooker is a little different).  Removing the slow cooker lid, or just tilting the lid open, will help thicken the onions in the last hour of cooking.


Need inspiration?

We have several ideas on Eat REAL America including:

Caramelized Onion, Apple & Prosciutto Pizza

Paprika Pork Chops with Caramelized Onions

Chicken Teriyaki Burger

Caramelized Onion Grilled Cheese

Beer Bratwurst Sausage Pizza

Meatball Subs with Caramelized Onions

Moroccan Spice Lamb Pizza

Spinach Walnut Powerhouse Salad

Good for You French Onion Soup

Cauliflower Korma with Caramelized Onions

Caramelized Onion, Fig & Gorgonzola Pizza

Avocado & Spicy Mayo Stuffed Burgers

Acorn Squash & Caramelized Onion Dip


Give your taste buds a treat and try making some caramelized onions!

There are lots of possibilities to make your next meal a little easier!

Please share if you have any onion-cutting tips to avoid the tears!


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2 Responses to Turn Onions Into a Flavor Powerhouse!

  1. In the business we are able to purchase pre peeled onions. This is great because all of the vapors have dissipated. If you are in a hurry and don’t have 45 minutes you can speed up the process w/ red wine. As it reduces the natural sugars in the wine start to caramelize in turn caramelize the onions as well.

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