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Carmelizing onions - Input Junkie
May 7th, 2012
10:30 am


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Carmelizing onions
In a more light-hearted than usual addition to my "you're never cynical enough" series, How long it really takes to carmelize onions. Food writers have been lying to you....

From the comments: A relatively fast method which involves baking soda, sugar, and water. However, it still takes longer than the 4 or 5 minutes reported in many recipes.

Quoted in full from the comments because they don't seem to have permalinks:

If someone browns onions for a majority of their dishes, it is Indians! Let me tell you one thing: if you take 45 minutes to brown onion, you would not be able to get an Indian meal ever cooked on time Smile

So, how long does it take to brown onions? First, it depends on the quantity. A small onion here (which would be about a medium to medium-large onion in India) should not take more than 15 minutes. So, why does Madhur Jaffery, who you have referred to in the article, still say 5 minutes? That brings us to the second factor: onions in India are much drier (i.e., they have a much lower water content than we have here). In fact, people in India seek out drier onions in a market because it takes significantly less time to brown them! In addition, drier onions have matured enough, so they are better for cooking. Here, in the US, the water content in the onions, and practically every vegetable, is much higher. So when one tries to brown onions, significant time is spent first evaporating the water, thus adding to the time it should actually take to brown them!

A third reason is experience (or lack thereof). Experienced cooks will brown onions much quicker than amateurs, or people who do not cook as much, would.

Butter will brown onions faster not because the water in them has evaporated, but because butter tends to brown easily. That does not cook the onion completely, something that would not be suitable for Indian curries.

Ever since I came to this country (almost 27 years now), I have cooked meals. For me, spending 45 minutes on browning onions would be blasphemy . . . I have kids and other work to attend to and they would miss school the next day because dinner was so late the previous evening. Personally, I can brown a small onion here (without burning it on high heat!) in about 10 - 12 minutes. For me, 20 minutes browning a small onion would be too long, even if I do other stuff (such as chop veggies).

Hope this explains why we think that chefs must not be telling the truth about browning onions.

ETA Turning onions into flavor bombs Long slow cooking, and a little of the science. It's mentioned that carmelizing involves breaking down the cell walls in the onion. I wonder whether hammering on the onion first would help. Experimentation is required.

Link thanks to andrewducker.

This entry was posted at http://nancylebov.dreamwidth.org/539437.html. Comments are welcome here or there. comment count unavailable comments so far on that entry.

(8 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:May 7th, 2012 03:16 pm (UTC)
So glad to hear someone else mention the onions thing. It is one of 3 or 4 things that I figured out on my own this year, after years of not understanding.

My onions and my cooking are the better for it-- and I can use that time to get other things done!
[User Picture]
Date:May 7th, 2012 07:16 pm (UTC)
Yes; this just changed my life. Not a LOT, mind, but it was life changing in a small way. :) I no longer am wondering why I just can't get it right and what I'm doing wrong.
[User Picture]
Date:May 7th, 2012 09:11 pm (UTC)
Nice to know that it's an actual lie, and not just me Doing It Wrong. I used to think I was doing it wrong, because first the onions would get soft and translucent, and only later would they get brown and caramely. But I guess that's a necessary stage in the process.

I ran into something similar the one (and so far only) time I made homemade custard for a trifle. The recipe said something like mix the ingredients and then heat over a low flame until the custard thickens, which should take a few minutes. I heated and stirred and heated and stirred -- around 20 minutes. The damned thing was still completely liquidy, with no visible thickening. I was ready to toss it out and buy commercial custard, but first I called a friend who does a lot more cooking than me, and described the problem. "Keep heating and stirring," she recommended. So I did. At 45 bloody minutes in, it finally started to show some signs of thickening. Maybe 10 minutes later, it was perfect. So it was worth persevering, but sheesh. The trifle was great, but if I ever do it again, I think I'll go with commercial custard.
[User Picture]
Date:May 7th, 2012 10:14 pm (UTC)
Anecdotally, when I pan-cook cheap frozen hamburgers, my brother throws in sliced onions in the greasy pan while it's still somewhat hot, and they do seem to brown pretty quickly. So there might be something to butter and saturated fat, though I certainly haven't isolate any of the factors.

It could also be that my brother chops the onions and waits for me to finish the burgers, which allows the slices to dry up a bit, like the comment you're quoting says.

45min seems about right when I do it the conventional way. I'll try the baking soda way soon. If it works, another victory for baking soda! (Which I seem to use for almost anything but baking...)

Edited at 2012-05-07 10:19 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
Date:May 8th, 2012 12:12 am (UTC)
This caused me to scratch my head, wonder if I'd been hallucinating for years, and add caramelized onions to tonight's dinner. Onions thinly sliced in the mandoline, a smidge of butter, a tiny bit of sugar, and a timer. After 3 minutes I started to see brown bits, and by the end of 5 minutes they were what I, at least, think of as caramelized. Maybe I'm using a different definition than everyone else? Maybe I'm living in an alternate universe.

I frequently add Penzey's Tsardust Memories to the sugar, because it's yummy, but I got the same results pre-Tsardust, as well as pre-mandoline.
[User Picture]
Date:May 8th, 2012 12:23 am (UTC)
Looking at the pictures on Google Images, "caramelized onion" varies from merely light brown and sticky to very dark and practically a jam. So it may just be that I (and the recipe writers) have low standards for caramelization.
[User Picture]
Date:May 8th, 2012 01:37 am (UTC)
There was some discussion about this in the articles. Apparently a browned onion (very nice) and a carmelized onion (gift of the gods) are not the same thing.
[User Picture]
Date:May 8th, 2012 01:49 am (UTC)
Apparently I've been sold a great many browned onion dishes in restaurants passing as caramelized. Interesting!
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