Caramelized onions are the shining star in so many dishes. You can put them on sandwiches, in pasta, on salads and on, well, just about anything. Unlike your typical sautéed onions or raw onions, caramelized onions come with a subtle sweetness yet still retain that savory and delicious onion taste and aroma.
Even though this dish contains only one main ingredient, onions, caramelized onions can still be difficult to make just right. That may be due to the fact that while they're an easy enough dish to prepare, there are a few steps that have to be followed. If you skip these steps, you'll either end up with sautéed onions, burnt onions, or mushy onions. Get your dish just right by following the tips below.
1. Slice them right
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There are a couple of things to keep in mind when slicing onions that you use for caramelized onions. The first, and most important, is to not slice them too thinly. That's right, now is not the time to show off your killer knife skills. If the onions are too thin, they will dry out and at least some of them will end up stuck to the bottom of the pan. Instead, slice them about 1/8" thick and no thinner. The extra heft will keep them from drying out and will keep your onions soft, not burnt.
Secondly, cut the onion in half and then slice towards the root, not parallel to it. This is really just for presentation sake, but they sure do look a lot nicer this way (and it's a little easier to move them around in the pan, too!)
2. Use butter and oil
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One of the greatest debates when it comes to caramelized onions is whether you should use butter or oil. And the good news is, everyone's right! Truthfully, it takes a little bit of both to make great caramelized onions. Start with a good chunk of butter and add a little bit of oil to them. You want to add enough of both so that together, they just coat the bottom of the pan, about 3 tablespoons of butter with 1 tablespoon of oil added.
The butter is needed for a couple of reasons. First it helps to brown the onions and as the onions cook it lends that rich, buttery flavor to them. The oil on the other hand, is needed so that the onions don't burn - something that is all too easy to do when cooking with butter alone.
3. Don't crowd the pan
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Onions let off enough moisture on their own. If you pack too many onions into one pan, they'll just produce more water and cause the onions to steam. Yes, eventually they will still caramelize but it will take much longer than they normally would. For a 12-inch pan, use about two large sliced onions. That will be plenty of room for them to move around, and still give you lots of caramelized deliciousness to munch on when they're done.
4. Keep the heat low
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Crank that heat too high and you'll end up with sautéed, or worse, burnt onions. Instead, you want to keep the heat low and probably a lot lower than you would think. Don't you dare turn that heat higher than medium-low, or you won't get caramelized onions. This is to slowly coax out those natural sugars that make caramelized onions so delightfully good. And yes, you need to keep it at this low heat for the entire time. Caramelized onions are one of those dishes that just cannot be rushed.
5. Stir regularly
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The low heat can make caramelized onions take a long time. That long time can make it tempting to sit down with a glass of wine and let them cook on their own. Avoid doing this. Caramelized onions don't need to be stirred during their entire cooking time, but they do need to be stirred fairly regularly. This will make sure that they cook evenly, while if you don't stir them regularly, they won't be. And some of them will also likely get burned in the process.
6. Let them cook
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One of the things about caramelized onions is that you have to let them cook. If you're cooking two onions, it should take about 45 minutes over medium-low heat. There's just no way around it.
7. Deglaze the pan
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This isn't one of those absolute necessities, but it can take your caramelized onions up a notch. Once the onions are finished cooking and are soft and golden, deglaze the pan using anything that will complement the flavors of the dish you're going to be using them in. Stock, wine, beer, even coffee works. Whatever you think will add to your onions, and your dish, add it and then scrape the bottom of the pan (yes, caramelized onions make brown bits too!) The onions will absorb the flavor and hard to believe, but your caramelized onions will be even better!