Caramelized Onions

My Rouses Everyday, July/August 2017

When it comes to onions and burgers, there are different layers of oniony deliciousness.

A thin slice of raw onion adds a certain layer of hot, acidic flavor. Shards of grilled onions bring a mellower version of that zestiness. But a caramelized onion is pure magic — a secret weapon in your arsenal of burger toppings.

Most standard recipes have some variation of “chop 2 medium-sized onions, sauté for 3-5 minutes, then…” whatever comes next. But if you’re blessed with patience behind the burner (or can somehow develop that skill), you’ll go beyond the 5-minute mark and see an amazing transformation. Here’s how to achieve a simple (yet fantastic) culinary mastery.

Stage One: Raw to Lazy

For a sizeable batch of oniony goodness, chop up 8-10 medium-sized white onions, and toss with 3/4 to 1 cup of vegetable oil (nothing fancy here, but a little bacon grease thrown in wouldn’t hurt either) and a couple of tablespoons of kosher salt. Put it all in your biggest, lidded Dutch oven and crank the heat to medum-high. Get ready for lessons in attention and patience.

Most cooks only see the first phase of onion cookery: when the little nuggets or shards of onion go from cloudy yellow/white to clear.

This is the process where an onion turns “lazy” — all the onion juices heat up, burst thought their cell walls, and mix with hot oil in the sauté pan. If you’ve got a good stove, you’ll get there without too much trouble, and think that that’s the end.

Stage 2: Gold to Tan

Go a few minutes beyond lazy, and you’ll see subtle but important changes. The watery onion mixture starts to take on a light amber hue — a yellowish gold that lets you know that things are (literally) cooking. The color comes from the onion juice starting to cook and change — as the sugars start to darken and get more complex in flavor. It’s the beginning, flavor-wise, of the really good stuff.

Stage 3: Deeply Browned

It’ll take another 10 minutes for the onions — now a mix of pasta-like shreds and golden liquid — to proceed to the next level of deliciousness.

Somewhere in the 10- to 15-minute range, you’ll watch the oil mixture start to turn from yellow-gold to goldish-tan to beige to transparent brown as the sugars break down and gather up increasingly deep flavors.

And here’s where your patience will be sorely tested. If you grew up with a grandmother making gumbo, remember her lessons: “Turn down the heat, keep stirring and, for goodness’ sake, pay attention.”

It’ll seem like forever, but it’ll be worth it. Think of it as kitchen meditation — a chance to concentrate and stir as the onion takes on more color.

Stage 4: Fully Caramelized

When the once-crunchy onion chunks cook down to a medium brown, you’re getting to the Zone of Pure Deliciousness. Just like with caramel, the darker the shade, the more incredible the flavors.

You can stop here (like on all the TV game shows), or you can keep going — going for a darker shade of brown and deeper shades of sweetness.

If you’re just starting out with the wonders of deep, dark, jammy onions, I’d play it safe here. Don’t go for the full-on mahogany brown on your first few tries. Add a little water or wine every once in awhile to dissolve any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Adjust your salt to taste. Maybe a little black pepper.

Turn off the fire, back away and let it rest. You’ll have a good-sized batch of deeply browned, fragrant onions that can be slathered on a burger or used in a million different ways. They’ll keep in the fridge for a week and in the freezer for a couple of months.

Be forewarned: They probably won’t last long. Once you get a bite of onion-laced beef, all self-control goes out the window. But when this batch is gone, you’ll have another chance to practice your patience — with another batch and another and another …