24 August 2009

For the Love of an Onion

Sometimes when I hear someone say they don't like onions, I pause for a second, thinking of all the terrible ways onions are served. There's the huge, half-inch-thick rings of red onion on a backyard burger, those teeny tiny ones on McDonald's burgers and the dehydrated flakes you can buy next to spices in the grocery store.

If someone makes a judgment of their onion likability based on one of those variations, I cringe. It would be kind of like saying you hate compact cars because you'd only seen the Ford Fiesta. There are far better versions out there.

This is the exact moment for which the caramelized onion was created. It's amazing what just a little bit of heat, oil and love can do for the plain old onion. The texture turns soft, and the once stiff curls of white, turn golden and limp, as if they'd worked a hard day and just melted into the couch with a drink in one hand. A light dusting of salt added while they cook heightens the notice-me factor, transforming onions from a condiment to something you might just sit and eat right there, straight from the pan without giving it a second thought. Then, you will think, "Who on earth could hate onions?"

I'll tell you how to make caramelized onions, and I don't mind a bit if you just eat them from the pan. But, if you'd like to share, the possibilities are endless. Add them to salads, your mac' 'n' cheese, atop your pizza, on a sandwich, in an omelet, a pasta salad or mashed potatoes. Mix them with goat cheese and spread on crostinis or dollop onto grilled peaches. Sweet, subtle and a little indulgent, they transform any everyday dish into something worth making again.

How to caramelize onions:

Caramelize is a verb and adjective you'll hear frequently regarding cooking. It basically means to cook something slowly so that the sugars have a chance to percolate, browning as they come to the surface -- hence the name, caramelize.

To caramelize onions, slice any variety of onion (except green onions or scallions). If you're not sure how to slice an onion, click here, for a video tutorial. Since caramelized onions are about a quarter of the volume of whole onions, shoot for more, not less. Estimate that one, baseball-size onion will equal roughly a quarter of a cup of caramelized onions.

Using a heavy-bottomed pan (
not non-stick), add about a tablespoon of olive oil per medium onion to a medium-hot pan. Once the oil ripples, add onions. Shake the pan about just to create a single, even layer of onion. For best results, don't overcrowd the pan; they will just steam and not caramelize. Reduce the heat to a medium low and leave alone. Seriously, don't poke and push around with a spoon. Just leave them. Cook something else, read the paper or drink a glass of wine. Push them around just once or twice when they begin to brown, so they get evenly cooked. The process will take anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour depending on how thickly you've sliced your onions and just how many there are in your pan. Lower the temperature if they begin to burn.

Once cooked, use them immediately or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for a couple of days. The onions can be pulled out and either reheated quickly in a skillet or used room temperature.


Danno said...

Your timing is perfect. Just last night ate Pizza for the second time (at Fino) that had carmelized onions on it. I decided they were my new favorite pizza topping.

Amy said...

They are indeed one of the best pizza toppings!