How to Caramelize Onions Like a Chef

How to Caramelize Onions Like a Chef

How to Caramelize Onions Like a Chef-url

Fact: Caramelized onions are a game-changing ingredient. Jammy, earthy, savory and sweet at the same time, these umami-packed alliums instantly elevate burgers, pizza, pretty much any meat – and so much more.

The only issue is that the richly flavored onions take a while to make. There are some store-bought versions out there, but many of them are onion jams instead of true caramelized onions, so they won't give you the same deep, rich flavor that you're going for. This is one of those times when the time and effort to make something from scratch is well worth it.

To make the process slightly less intimidating, we asked a few top chefs how to caramelize onions at home. Once you're armed with their expert tips (and a bit of patience) you'll be well on your way to becoming an onion caramelizing pro. 

What Are the Best Onions to Caramelize?

You might be wondering which types are best for caramelizing. After all, there are many different types of alliums out there – Vidalias, white, yellow and red onions, shallots – and even something called a potato onion that looks like a bunch of garlic bulbs stuck together. Considering that variety, you might assume that certain kinds of onions are better for caramelizing, but on the contrary, they all work well. 

"I love caramelizing almost all types of onions," says Tyler Anderson, chef/owner of Millwright's Restaurant & Tavern in Simsbury, Connecticut and the culinary director of Swyft & Ore Hill in Kent. "The sugars come out of the onion and all develop into something quite magical." During peak onion season (late summer into early autumn) he sees ten different varieties at their Rock Cobble Farm, where they grow more than 350 vegetables, fruits and flowers for Ore Hill & Swyft. "I slice them all and caramelize them together. The result is complex and delicious." 

As for any onions you can't caramelize, Anderson says he hasn't found one yet.

Butter vs. Oil for Caramelizing Onions

One question chefs get asked all the time is whether you should use butter or oil to caramelize your onions. Everyone has their preference, but author, restaurateur and TV chef Judy Joo says you can use any type of fat you want. "Butter adds the most flavor and helps the caramelization as the milk fats brown nicely, but sometimes I like to use a neutral oil like canola and let the onion flavor shine," she says.

How to Caramelize Onions

According to Anderson, the best way to caramelize onions is low and slow, slow, slow. "The key is to take your time to develop deep flavor," he explains, noting that the WORST caramelized onions are rushed ones. 

Executive chef Shane McAnelly of Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, California agrees. "So many people cook their caramelized onions over too high a heat and all the color they get is just from browning the onions, not actually caramelizing them," he explains. "You don’t develop nearly the amount of sweetness when you cook them that way." While McAnelly admits his process takes a very long time, your onions will come out very, very soft and delicious in the end. 

He likes to use a thick-bottomed pot that's not too wide, so the onions will have a chance to really stew, and the natural juices don’t dry too quickly. When you use a wider pan, that tends to happen. "I like to start with a nice hot pot and uniformly thin julienne white onions," he says.

When the pot is hot, he adds some grapeseed oil and the onions and starts to stir frequently. "I don’t want any color on them at this point, but one trick I learned a while back is to season the onions with salt early in the process to draw out the water inside of them, which helps speed up the whole process." 

He then lets them hang out and sauté for a few more minutes and once they start to turn translucent, he turns the heat down low – just barely hotter than the pilot light. "I cover them at this point and let them stew for around an hour until they are very tender and very juicy," he says. Once they are fork tender, he removes the lid, kicks the heat up to medium, and starts reducing all of the water that has cooked out of the onions. 

"As that liquid reduces, the natural sugars from the onion begin to caramelize, and that is what will develop the brown color," he adds. 


How Long Does it Take to Caramelize Onions?

Given that low and slow is the name of the caramelizing game, you can't expect jammy, dark-brown, meltingly soft onions in minutes. Anderson says they take two to three hours to make caramelized onions, but we've found that we can make a pan of tasty caramelized onions at home in about an hour. Although the time commitment is significant, the end result is so worth it – as evidenced by Swyft's Smash Burger with caramelized onions. 

Chefs' Top Tips for Caramelizing Onions

  • Keep it even. McAnelly says that uniformly sliced onions are the key to great caramelized onions. You can thinly slice them with a knife or on a mandoline slicer.
  • Use a heavy pot. You also want to use a thick-bottomed pan – steel or cast iron. "The base needs to be a great conductor so you don’t get hot spots or burning," says Anderson.
  • Deglaze with water. If your onions start to stick, you're cooking them too quickly. "Deglaze your pan with a little bit of water, scrape up the sticking parts, add more oil or butter and continue the process," says Anderson. 
  • Make more than you need. If you're going to take the time to make caramelized onions, you might as well make a big batch. Joo likes to freeze any leftover onions in ice cube trays or muffin tins so they are portioned and easy to add to recipes later on.

How to Use Caramelized Onions

McAnelly loves them as a condiment on a burger or sandwich but says they are a great flavor base for some next-level sauce work. "If you add some Madeira and beef stock, you can make a lovely steak sauce relatively easily."

Need more ideas? Joo has you covered. She tosses caramelized onions into pasta, piles them on top of pizza and savory tarts, stirs them into dips, adds them to quiche, stuffs them into omelets, and pairs them with rice or lentils.


This article was written by Kelli Acciardo from Parade and was legally licensed through the DiveMarketplace by Industry Dive. Please direct all licensing questions to

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