How to turn humble onions into sweet, savory magic: caramelize them.
Want a secret weapon in your cooking arsenal that you can pull out anytime to make anything taste better?
One that can make the difference between a dish that's good and a dish that's fabulous? Between so-so and WOW? A secret ingredient you can toss into almost anything, because it's totally pareve and versatile?
No, it’s not a dream.
Yes, this magic ingredient exists... and it's onions - the caramelized kind.
Is it magic? Or science?
Onions are like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When they're raw, they're hard, sharp, with a nasty sting that makes your eyes tear up. But when caramelized, they're soft, mellow, sweet and... well, full of all that caramelly goodness.
The word "caramelization" refers to the browning that happens in the onion's sugars. Sugar in an onion? You betcha. Even the most humble yellow onions have plenty of sugar, and the special sweeter varieties like Vidalia have even more.
Did you know that you can actually caramelize onions in the crock pot?
Although up above I said that they were pareve (which is true), in Jewish law onions are considered a “sharp” food. So you should only prepare them with the type of food (ie meat or dairy) that you’re going to be serving them with. OR use a pareve cutting board, frying pan, etc., to do caramelized onions in bulk to use with either one. (These laws can be complicated; ask a rabbi if you’re not sure!)
Caramelized onions freeze beautifully, by the way. They don’t lose their flavour, though they may be softer when you pull them out of the freezer. If you’ve prepared and cooked them totally pareve, just freeze in individual baggies and pull them out to use for any meat or dairy meal, anytime. If they have been cut and cooked with meat or dairy utensils, be careful to label the baggies.
(There’s nothing worse than staring at unlabelled food in the freezer and having to throw it away because you’re not sure whether you can use it or not… )
How to caramelize onions – the hands-off easy way.
You can also do them in a pan, and it doesn't take as long as you might think. I use my cast-iron skillet because I know they won't burn in there.
Warm up a bit of canola or olive oil and add thinly-sliced onions. Sprinkle it with salt to start the water coming out of the onions. Stir every once in a while until the onions are translucent, but don't let them brown.
Once the onions are soft, translucent and it seems like they're about to start turning brown, add a cup of water to the pan. You can turn up the heat now. Simmer the water until it's almost gone.
If you're in a hurry, you can probably just simmer off the rest of the water and use the onions right away, but for even more mellow oniony yummies, repeat the adding-water process a couple more times until the onions are a dark, rich brown (the water stops them from burning). When they look right, let the water simmer away and they're ready to use.
Hint: Near the end, when most of the water is gone, add a splash of wine - red or white, or you can even use beer – and let it evaporate off for extra flavour.
Hint #2: Don’t tell anyone, but you can add a little bit of ordinary granulated white sugar to kick up the sweetness of your onions if you’re using ordinary yellow field onions but want them to taste like supersweet Vidalias.
What can you do now with your magic onions?
Okay, your onions are all sweet and ready (I’m making myself hungry writing this!). Now what?
Once you have caramelized onions, almost anything goes. The world is your kosher, pareve oyster.
Here are my all-time favourite uses for caramelized onions:
- Pletzl! It’s Jewish focaccia. If you've never had it, please do yourself a favour and make some now.
- Mix with poppy seeds! Use the mixture as a hidden challah filling for special occasions.
- On top of cholent! My husband's famous cholent wouldn't be complete without some caramelized onions, and they can make even a pareve cholent delicious.
- Up on top! Use them to top salads and almost anything else. They keep well in the fridge but bring them to room temperature before serving because they’re a little slimy when chilled.
- Sandwich time! In a meat sandwich, with some grainy mustard, everything tastes more deli-authentic with real caramelized onions on top. Grilled-cheese sandwiches come to life as well with a little caramel action.
- Pasta! Toss them into pasta, with a little butter or a creamy sauce for a perfect side dish.
- Baked potatoes! Top with sour cream and caramelized onions for a blissful taste of perfection...
- On Purim! Try Amy Kritzer's (WhatJewWannaEat) savoury caramelized-onion "hamentashen" (on pizza dough, with goat cheese) for Purim... or anytime.
- With your veggies! Green beans and other veggies really pop once you've added some caramelized onions. Try these super-simple green beans and get back to me if you love them.
- In quiche! Whether in quiche or in omelettes, caramelized onions pair perfectly with eggs.
- In soup! Once your onions are perfect, if you have enough of them, you can add water to make the classic French Onion Soup. Top with croutons and cheese... mmm...
- Dip it! Mix it into sour cream with a little salt to make a delicious onion dip.
- With meat! There's nothing like a cluster of sweet caramelized onions to bring out the savoury in a nice steak or roasted brisket.
Anywhere you'd think about using uncooked onions, try swapping in caramelized onions. You might not go so extreme as this caramelized-onion chocolate cake, but once you know the secret, you'll wonder how you ever survived in the kitchen without this sweet, sweet new friend.