ARE ONIONS THE NEW CHOCOLATE? Well, not exactly. But call them candied onions if you wish ‑‑ and you can even make them your way.
Whether you stop at soft-pale-plump or continue on to sweeter and more golden for French onion soup, or yet darker for more intensely sweet gooey goodness, your mouth will thank you and wonder why you ever felt the need to feed it chocolate.
From garden patch to pan to palate, no culinary delicacy exceeds in majesty the magical metamorphosis from dirty onion to a candy‑sweet exalted Allium worthy of a place atop the most lauded of desserts. Um…okay, I lied. They’re not quite THAT glorious, but they sure are a delicious addition to many a meal, from a condiment for sandwiches or veggie burgers, scattered over a casserole, mixed into mashed potatoes, you name it‑‑or just served my favorite way, simply heaped on a plate as a standalone side dish. My lovely lunch potato shown above is topped with a huge plop of my plant-based vegan cheese sauce and a big pile of sweet caramelized onions. No butter required!
These onions are so sinfully simple to make, the guilt you feel will make you have to lash yourself with the things before you sink your teeth into them. But that’s between you and your conscience to deal with. I’m already over it. So let’s do this thing.
THE STAR OF THE SHOW
First, you need onions‑‑any kind. A recent trip I took to Walla Walla, Washington rewarded me with a 25‑bag of sweet onions from a super cool market called Klickers. Whether you choose onions that are red, yellow or white, sweet or more pungent, they all harbor plenty of complex sugars (the natural, good kind that we can’t taste in raw onions) that break down in the cooking process into simpler sugars (that we CAN taste) that will brown into a mouthwatering palate pleaser.
ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT
First, cut the onions however you like them. Do you prefer them in rings, as I do? Dices? Lengthwise crescent shapes? It doesn’t matter‑‑just do it. I aim for slices about 3/8″ thick, but your thickness is up to you. Safely grab a good knife, put on some fun music, and get slicing.
If I ever want to do at least a half dozen large onions at a time (I freeze some), I turn to my high‑quality, heavy nonstick lasagna pan from Costco that’s large enough to cover two burners. Hey, cooking this way is even more fun than double‑fisting your favorite beverage! You can use a smaller pan, of course, but with fewer onions. My lovely 3.5‑qt. Cuisinart covered saucepan serves me well for caramelizing one or two large onions.
A nonstick pan is a huge help if you don’t want to use any butter or oil. I like using a few tablespoons of water, sometimes with a bit of Better Than Bouillon vegetarian beef seasoning (optional) to get them started. If you’re an oil or butter person, go ahead and throw a teaspoon or two into the pan and turn the heat to medium or medium‑high to start, then add the onions. A pinch of salt and/or sugar are optional‑‑I’ve done it both ways, and I’ve decided that onions alone are just fine with me. I’m going for deliciously simple here. Cover the pan, and after a few minutes lower the heat to medium or medium-low.
Soon the onions will begin to release their liquid with heat, which is called “sweating”‑‑but don’t add any antiperspirant to the pan, okay? They’ll be fine. I like this pan‑covering step so the process gets started nice and slow, because I’m usually multitasking and easily distracted. Slow is good when caramelizing onions.
Keep the pan covered long enough to allow most of the onions to turn somewhat limp, gently stirring/turning them every few minutes. It’s not rocket science‑‑sometimes I’m busy and turn the heat down and let them soften on low heat for a half hour or something; sometimes I’m more attendant and give them more heat and watch them closer.
“WHY THE LIMPNESS?” you ask. Well, it’s a genius answer. The limper they all are, the more fair it is to the whole batch of onions because more of them reach the bottom of the pan at the beginning. As you stir them, more of their “limping” friends have an opportunity to reach the bottom so they can end up as beautiful as their more privileged friends who got down there from the get-go. A perfect finished batch of candied onions requires a community effort.
By the way, unless you’re in a hurry and choose to stand at the stove and babysit your onions to guard them against burning, this process can take up to 45 minutes to an hour. (Did you catch the part about putting on some fun music?)
Once your onions are softened and beginning to brown a bit, go ahead and uncover them so the water can evaporate as they get hot enough to start to break down their sugars into a tastier form. From this point, adjust your heat according to the time you have available for babysitting the onions, gently stirring occasionally so new onions get to the browning zone. The hotter the pan, the faster they burn‑‑I mean (oops) the faster they brown (just making sure you’re paying attention). It’s easy to stand there and hurry them up a bit, but equally easy to turn down the heat for a while if you need to step away.
WATCH THE MAGIC HAPPEN
Sometimes I find the onions are browning and caramelizing a bit faster than I want them to‑‑maybe they’re still substantially plump but browning before they’re cooked down very much. You can add a little bit of water at this point to keep them from sticking, or cover them for a while longer, or just turn down the heat. You’re the boss of the process, so adjust things to your heart’s content.
When they have reached the point of caramely sweetness and the browning point you like them, you’re finished! Good luck if you’ve only chosen to caramelize a couple of onions‑‑they cook down quite a bit; so if you’re feeding other onion eaters, you’d better allow at least an onion per person if you know what’s good for you. And these caramelized onions definitely are!