When it comes to time-consuming dishes, caramelized onions are pretty high up there on the list. Not only do they take a long time, they require a lot of attention while you do it. A batch for French onion soup can take several hours and that’s just the beginning of the dish. There’s nothing to compare to the long-cooked flavor of onions that have slowly caramelized to bring out their sugars and turned a deep golden brown. But there is another way.
I discovered completely by accident at some point that you could achieve a similar flavor in about 40 minutes as what you would otherwise get in two hours. It’s not as deep or as well-balanced but for a dish that uses caramelized onions are only part rather than as the centerpiece flavor, it certainly does the trick.
It’s based on the understanding that partly burnt sugar is what gives caramelized onions (or caramel-anything really) it’s deep and rich taste. Rather than waiting for the onions to slowly burn to the right point, you can speed up the process, stop it right on the cusp of being char rather than a sweet flavor, and then start it all over again. Most of the caramel sticks to the pan rather than the onions but a bit of a water and a quick scrape of the pan set that right. Is it just as good as the kind that you stir on the stove for hours? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s a whole lot faster which is worth it to me.
2 tbs butter
2-3 lbs of onions, any variety, halved and sliced thinly into half-moons
2-3 tsp kosher salt
½ -1 cup water
1 tbs Worcestershire sauce (optional)
Heavy sauté pan – stainless steel or cast iron, you want to be able to scrape it
Hard spatula or tongs capable of scraping the pan
Step 1. Add the butter to the pan and put over medium heat. Add the onions and salt and cook until the onions start to sweat and look translucent.
Step 2. When the onions are soft and have lost some water, about 10 minutes of cooking, turn the heat up slightly, set a timer for 3 minutes and walk away. Check it after the time ends to see if pieces are starting to brown and stick to the bottom. If they aren’t there yet, reset the timer and come back to check. Don’t move the onions too much while this is happening. You want a good crust of brown to form on the bottom of the pan – that will be where the flavor comes from.
Step 3. When you start to see golden-brown crust form on the bottom of the pan, pour in ¼ cup of water and SCRAPE. Get up all the brown bits until the pan is clean on the bottom and all the brown-ness has been dissolved in the water. Then gently stir the onions in with the water so that they take on the color and flavor of the caramelization on the pan.
Step 4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 at least one more time or more if you like. Each time the onions will brown a little more quickly and it will be a little sooner that you need to stop the cooking with cool water before it burns. After four additions of water the onions are nice deep brown and have a deep caramel flavor but more than that and it’s very difficult to keep them from burning.
Step 5. If you choose to only repeat the steps once or twice, a good way to intensify the flavor is to add a tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce. The umami-rich sauce will punch up the caramelized flavor without making you go through the process again. If you’re looking for a vegetarian version, substitute dark soy sauce instead.*
Add this to pretty much any dish you can think of. Stew, soups, casseroles, pizza. Pretty much anywhere you need a flavor boost, this will do it.
*Dark soy is not the same as regular soy sauce. It’s much thicker and more intense – this is not a place where you can substitute regular soy sauce.