How to Caramelize Onions in Only 20 Minutes
Caramelizing onions used to take me FOREVER. I have honestly wasted hours of my life on this activity.
But no more.
I've finally figured out how to do it properly and (relatively) quickly, and thought I'd share this method with the Internet to make sure you do not waste hours of your life while trying to make French onion soup from scratch or this fantastic paleo Thanksgiving stuffing or anything else that starts with sweet, sweet onion-y perfection.
Caramelized onions are slow-cooked onions. What happens in the pan is that the natural sugars in the onions start to sneak out of the alliums and do what sugar does—caramelize. Yum. Sugar also burns quickly, which is why you have to tend to the precious onions like a hawk to make sure they don't go horribly wrong.
And, on my honor, I solemnly swear the timing is not an exaggeration. The jammy, golden caramelized onions pictured in this post were cooked for 20 minutes thanks to our friend, Science. That said, it's important to be patient with caramelized onions and every stove and pan is going to be different so don't @ me if yours take longer.
Tips on How to Caramelize Onions
1. Use a large pan, nonstick or not.
The more important thing is the surface area of the pan. Make sure it's a large one or Dutch oven to avoid over-crowding. I can usually fit about two large onions (thinly sliced) into my Dutch oven. I prefer to use a big nonstick Dutch oven. A non-nonstick pan will work well too, but you may just have to lower the heat, add more fat and deglaze more often. It might take you longer than 20 minutes, but you will get there.
2. Start with a dry pan.
Yep, no butter. No oil. No fat. Nothing. Just the onions. This is the main trick to actually achieving caramelization in 20 minutes vs. 60. You have to give the onions time to get color before you slow down the browning with fat.
3. Add The butter or oil at the appropriate stage.
The photo below is the onion color about 12 minutes in, around the time I usually add butter, ghee or olive oil to the pan. As you can see, they already have a nice blonde caramelization and would be almost ready for French onion soup—but not quite. A good rule of thumb on the cooking fat is at least 1 T per large onion.
4. Be attentive.
It's not like you have to stand in front of the pan constantly stirring, but almost. It's only 20 minutes. You can do it.
vegan, vegetarian, paleo, whole30-friendly, gluten-free | yields 1 cup
2 large onions, thinly sliced
2 T butter, olive oil or ghee
pinch or two of salt
Add the onions to a large, dry pan or pot, and cook them on medium to medium-high heat. Watch and stir fairly often so they brown but don’t burn.
The pan might get a bit brown on the bottom, which is okay. As long as the actual onions aren’t burning and the pan isn't black, you’re good.
After about 10-12 minutes, add your preferred cooking fat (I used butter for these puppies pictured) and a sprinkle of salt to the pan. The cooking fat should help deglaze the pan a bit as well, but you can also use a splash of water or broth to do that.
Keep at it (it = stirring frequently and deglazing as needed) until the onions are your preferred level of caramelized. For me, that's about 20 minutes from the time they hit the pan when (hopefully) the onions will be the rich, golden tone and creamy texture you see below.
If you want to take them a little further so they are extra dark and sweet, lower the heat a bit and keep going.