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The Best Way to Caramelize Onions

One of my favorite food-related articles from 2012 came from Slate. It was called, “Why do recipe writers lie and lie and lie about how long it takes to caramelize onions?” and it spoke the truth: caramelizing onions is a matter of patience. Doing it properly takes at least 40 minutes, and the recipes that tell you you’ll have soft, brown onions in five or ten minutes are straight-up lying.

So, do I have some sort of trick to shorten your wait? Not exactly. But let’s be honest: we see caramelized onions in a recipe, and we let out a sigh. There goes any hope of getting dinner on the table quickly. And friends, that’s a problem I can solve.

The trick? Caramelize onions in bulk. Onions keep for a really long time; onions in lots of oil keep even longer. These will keep in the fridge for easily a week (actually longer, but if you’re nervous about storing them for so long, top them with a hefty drizzle of olive oil). If you make a big ole’ batch on a lazy Sunday, you’ll have enough caramelized onions to get you through a week’s worth of frittatas, tarts and more tarts, Mujaddara, and more.

And anyway, I find that it’s easier to caramelize onions in bulk. Pile ’em into a big pan, turn the heat very low, and cover. Then walk away. It’s pretty much that easy, and with no stress about how long they take, the promise of silky, soft, golden onions isn’t too much to hope for.

Let’s do this thing.

Best Caramelized Onions

5 large yellow onions
5 tablespoons butter, olive oil, or a mix (I like 3 and 2)
1 teaspoon salt

Peel onions, halve them from pole to pole, and slice into thin half-rings.

Pile the onions into the largest shallow skillet you have. If your largest shallow skillet doesn’t fit them, put them into a wide pot. Make sure whatever pot or pan you’re using has a lid.

Turn the heat to medium and add the butter/oil and salt. When the onions start making those wonderful sizzling noises, give the onions a good stir, reduce the heat to low, and cover the pot/pan.

After 20 minutes, check the onions. They should have sweated down considerably to the point where they are very soft and possibly turning tan. Spend the next 20-30 minutes cooking the onions uncovered, with the top off, and stirring occasionally to prevent sticking and ensure even cooking.

After 50-60 minutes, the onions should be very soft and deep golden brown. Store in a sealed container topped with a hefty drizzle of olive oil. Onions will keep for over a week.

Troubleshooting: If the onions look too dry, add water by the tablespoon and stir to incorporate with the onions. You can also add a bit more olive oil or butter if the onions aren’t glistening enough.

If you have one of those amazingly powerful stoves where “low” is still pretty high (lucky you), you’ll want to keep a closer eye on the onions to avoid burning them. Adding water and constant stirring are pretty good insurance policies there.

Finally, depending on how firm your onions are when you start out, they can soften quickly or very, very slowly. If your onions feel particularly soft, in 20 minutes of covered cooking they’ll probably have “melted” – meaning, they’ll be super soft and almost have lost their shape. Firmer onions will keep their shape in 20 minutes, so if you’re hoping for super melty onions, you may want to leave them covered on the heat for a bit longer.

Here’s to big batches of delicious ingredients. More to come.

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  • charlotte May 19, 2013,

    I love this post. Because the first time I caramelized onions, for mujadarra, and the next for onion soup, and on to other dishes over the years, it took about 40 or more minutes. I continue to caramelize onions as they are so delicious. But when I read the various on-line recipes (strangely never recipes in books, as I recall) they usually refer to the 10 or so minutes and each time I think “Are you kidding me??” So I lapped up your writing about this, some legit stuff in the food realm. Thank you. P.S., you’ll probably need to bring this piece back periodically, just to help the bewildered young cooks out there.

    • rivka May 20, 2013,

      Hear, hear. Scheduling this for a once-a-year update right now. Thanks for commiserating!

  • Bex June 3, 2013,

    You can freeze em too. No reason not to make tons.

  • dena @ohyoucook June 12, 2013,

    Make tons in the crock-pot. It’s definitely NOT fast, but at least you don’t have to stand there constantly stirring. And like Bex said, you can freeze ’em in batches.

    • nicole August 21, 2013,

      Brilliant idea!