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#1046 - Caramelizing Onions
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One of the most commonly encountered terms in cooking is the phrase "caramelizing," which is a sort of alchemy that converts savory ingredients into something with a touch of sweetness. You'll hear caramelizing often when you're talking about onions, but we feel that not all that many people actually know how to go about the process.
First of all, this is a useful technique that can be used year round, and is a welcome addition to our grilling repertoire. Who could resist a grilled steak smothered in caramelized onions? Carameliztion is the heating of sugar in a food until its constituent molecules break down and form an entire new set of molecules which have an entirely different set of properties. Basically, the longer sugar is heated, the less sweetness it has and the more bitter it becomes and the darker it will become. Any food that contains sugar is susceptible to caramelization. Ideally, the object is to retain sweetness while achieving the richness and tenderness that comes from cooking. So this is not merely an exercise in sautéing onions. It's a more involved and much slower process.
What kind of onions are best? Well, the sweeter the better. Tiny cippolino onions are great, as are the vidalia. Pungent onions like the purple can be caramelized, but take a longer time. Whichever you use, you are going to want to work with quite a few onions, as many as a half dozen. The more, the better, because they will keep themselves moist longer.
A good way to work with the onions is to lop off the top and bottom, peel them, and then cut into very small wedges, top to bottom. You will want a large, deep skillet to work with, and you will be using good quality olive oil for this. Work over a medium low to medium heat. Pour in olive oil first, and as it becomes wavy with heat, add the onions and spread them out evenly.
So how long this take? Any recipe that says you can caramelize onions in about 10 minutes just isn't being straight with you. The whole process should take about an hour. And how about adding sugar? Well, yes, adding a little sugar, say a teaspoon does help. Also try molasses or honey. There are also additional seasonings you can use. Salt is very useful since it draws out water, and pepper adds to the flavor. And at the end of the process you can deglaze the pan with a little balsamic vinegar, which will add to the flavor.
While preparing caramelized onions, you are playing a game between cooking the onions thoroughly, and not allowing them to scorch on the bottom of the skillet. You will want to stir every five minutes or so, and do so faithfully, so it's a matter or cooking and scraping. Add a little water if they start to scorch and stick to the bottom.
Once cooled, the caramelized onions will store in an air-tight container for several days.