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How to Caramelize Onions (Perfectly!)

How to Caramelize Onions (Perfectly!)

How to Caramelize Onions (Perfectly!)
If you’ve been a reader for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I include caramelized onions in a lot of my meals and recipes. Maybe they’re a bit of a crutch for me, cooking-wise–if I make a meal and it’s lacking a little something, nine times out of ten, I end up adding caramelized onions. But hey, they’re delicious! So why not add them to everything, right?

Over the years, I’ve read lots of different methods for caramelizing onions. Some call for a little bit of sugar; others are made in slow-cookers. They have varying times and temperatures. My biggest problem when it comes to caramelizing onions is trying to speed up the process–it just doesn’t work! If you cook them at a high temperature, they end up sautรฉing instead of caramelizing. And don’t get me wrong, sauteed onions are still good. But they’re not caramelized!

The secret to caramelizing onions is have patience. Lots and lots of patience. Because good things come to those who wait and if you cook them low and slow, you will be rewarded with perfect caramelized onions in a little over an hour. Yes, I said over an hour! But let’s go back to the beginning. Here’s how to caramelize onions, step-by-step.

Thinly sliced onionsThinly slice your onions. They should be pretty uniform in size.

Oil Heating in SkilletHeat oil in a skillet on low heat. Low! Not medium-low, low-low! For every large onion you’re caramelizing, add one tablespoon of oil and a pinch of kosher salt to your skillet. I’m doing two large onions here and I’m using two tablespoon of olive oil. Adjust the size of your skillet based on the amount of onions being cooked.

How to Caramelize Onions - The secret is patience!Here’s where the patience comes in. Your onions won’t do much for a while. As you can see, after cooking for 15 minutes, the onions are hardly even softened. This is the point where you’ll say to yourself, “Kiersten is completely nuts. I’m turning up the heat!” Don’t do it! I implore you! And when 30 minutes rolls around and your onions still haven’t done much, resist that urge and keep the heat on low. Stir your onions every five minutes or so, and more often once they start to brown (that will start happening after about 45 minutes).

Caramelized OnionsYou were patient and now you have yummy caramelized onions! This picture was taken exactly an hour and thirty minutes after the onions were put in the skillet. Although they were caramelized after an hour and fifteen minutes, I like them really caramelized, so I let them go a little longer. Season with additional salt if needed and pepper.

Some things to note: I have an electric range and I’ve heard from people using gas ranges that it doesn’t take them nearly as long to caramelize onions. So keep an eye on the onions and be aware that different types of stoves can make the cooking time vary. You can store your caramelized onions in a refrigerator for about a week or even make a big batch to freeze.

How to Caramelize Onions
Here are some ideas for using your caramelized onions:

Butternut Squash & Caramelized Onion Flatbread
Caramelized Onion & Eggplant Puff Pastry Tart
French Onion Soup Sandwiches
Mediterranean-Style Rotini with Toasted Garlic Panko
Sweet Potato Pizza with Kale & Caramelized Onions

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61 Comments

  • Reply
    Felicia
    January 3, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    This makes perfect sense… I just don’t think I would have the patience!

  • Reply
    Lori Popkewitz Alper
    January 3, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    I’ve always wanted to know how to caramelize onions. We eat a lot of onions over here and include them in most recipes. I had no idea that it takes so long, but I think you’re right-they’re worth the wait!

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 3, 2012 at 8:11 pm

      Well, another blogger commented that it takes her 30 minutes in a cast-iron skillet, so I’m going to look into that! But I’ve found that even at medium heat, they’re finished too soon and are more sauteed than caramelized.

  • Reply
    momto8blog
    January 3, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    yes! me too! i love onions..they are inexpensive and verstitile..I use them at least 3 times a week. Your post is greta..I liked the pictures with time frames!

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 3, 2012 at 8:08 pm

      I love onions too! And not only are they inexpensive and versatile, but they last the longest in the pantry, so when you’re out of all your other fresh veggies, you can still use your onions. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply
    Liz @ A Nut in a Nutshell
    January 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Can I just eat yours? I am way too lazy to baby those things for an hour! But they look fabulous.

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 3, 2012 at 8:06 pm

      Well, when you cook them that low, you actually don’t have to stir them very much–not until the very end! But yes, it is a long time to wait. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply
    Mary Beth Elderton
    January 3, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    So, yet again, impatience has been my problem! As long as I have been cooking, I’ve never done this. Am SO looking forward to tomorrow’s recipe.

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm

      I am impatient too and for years, I would just end up sauteing my onions because I didn’t want to bother letting them caramelize slowly. But the easiest thing to do is to make a big batch when you have time over the weekend!

  • Reply
    Emily
    January 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    I love, love, love carmelized onions. I make mine in a cast iron skillet – in about 30 minutes. Can’t wait for tomorrow’s post…french onion soup is my favorite – but a sandwich sounds even better. I hope it involves the broiler!

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 3, 2012 at 8:03 pm

      Spoiler alert: There is no broiler involved. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I need to try caramelizing onions in a cast iron skillet. Do you do it on low? I have one and I hate to admit it, but I find it such a hassle to take care of that I rarely use it. And this is shameful, but I don’t really understand how you’re supposed to take care of it either. Like, I know you oil it after using it, but then you just let it sit all oily and sticky in your cabinet? Man, I just totally outed myself as a bad food blogger, didn’t I?

      • Reply
        Emily
        January 3, 2012 at 8:53 pm

        Bummer about no broiler, but I am still curious.

        As for the cast iron, everything that I don’t cook in the crock pot gets cooked in the iron skillet. At first, I was scared of it. But, The Texan kept harping on me to buy one.

        First use: Season it with oil (bake in the oven for an hour).
        Clean: HOT water only, no soap. Use a brush or a doobie scrubber. I always wipe the surface of mine w/a paper towel before “washing it”. Be careful, though, those suckers are hot. Dry right away w/paper towel or hand towel. Add a small amount of oil and store it in your oven. So yes, you do leave it all oily and sticky, just not in the cabinet.

        Most of the time, I just wipe mine out with a paper towel instead of “washing it”. Is that gross? I hope not, but I’m sure that I’m not the only one. And, I don’t recall my grandmother washing hers. I remember it sitting on the stove full of shortening (gross, isn’t it?!)

        Using an iron skillet is supposed to be good for non-meat eaters too…helps with iron intake. I don’t know how much truth there is to that, though.

        • Reply
          The Type A Housewife
          January 4, 2012 at 7:58 pm

          Thank you for the tips–you are awesome! I’ve read the same thing about iron skillets being good for vegetarians, which is why I bought mine. But then I was completely puzzled by it. If it’s oily and sticky, do you wipe it clean before using it too?

          • Emily
            January 4, 2012 at 8:11 pm

            I don’t put a lot of oil in the skillet when I put it “away” {in my stove}, most of the time, I don’t even bother because I forget. When I do it, it’s just a little. I don’t leave it with inches of oil, more of a light shine. I bet you could even spray it with an “oil mister” and it would do the trick.

            I think the purpose of adding oil after use is to ensure that it remains “seasoned” between uses. In my house, we don’t have to worry about it. Today, for example, we had pancakes for breakfast (The Boy loves them), grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch – both cooked in the skillet. Didn’t stick to the meal plan, we had tortellini so I couldn’t use the skillet!

            You won’t ruin it if you don’t oil it every time. It’s the most basic tool for the kitchen. You should use yours more! ๐Ÿ˜‰

          • The Type A Housewife
            January 4, 2012 at 8:49 pm

            Okay, you have me convinced. I am going to try to use my skillet more! Thank you for imparting your knowledge. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Reply
    ElfRenee
    January 3, 2012 at 8:19 pm

    Sounds good!

  • Reply
    Candace
    January 3, 2012 at 9:02 pm

    I always saute onions and call them caramelized. That takes a lot of patience to really caramelize them! Thanks for the wonderful tutorial. I can’t wait to see those French Onion Soup sandwiches. That sounds so good!

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 4, 2012 at 7:55 pm

      Ha, I have done that too! “See, they’re brown? They’re caramelized!” ๐Ÿ™‚

      • Reply
        Candace
        January 4, 2012 at 7:57 pm

        I’m glad I’m not the only one! You inspire me to kick it up a notch though. I know I won’t be disappointed! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply
    [email protected] eco friendly homemaking
    January 3, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    I love onions almost any way but caramelized is one of my favorites! Thanks for this wonderful post!

  • Reply
    All Natural Katie
    January 3, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    You cracked me up! I would have turned up the heat after 10 minutes (as I usually do). I would have never thought that it would take 60 minutes, but it does make sense. Slow cooking is yummy cooking!

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 4, 2012 at 7:50 pm

      I am guilty of turning up the heat too! Patience is a virtue that I have very little of. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply
    Katherine
    January 3, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    mmmmmm. I have never successfully made good caramelized onions. I think I can do it now ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 4, 2012 at 7:44 pm

      It really is easy! The hardest part is the whole patience thing. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply
    Val
    January 4, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    I’ve never even THOUGHT about doing this! I wonder if you can freeze them and keep a batch on hand?

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 4, 2012 at 7:38 pm

      I’m not sure how they freeze, but they do keep in the refrigerator for about 5 days, so you can make them on the weekend and use them throughout the week.

  • Reply
    Amy
    January 4, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    I needed an “idiot’s guide” to doing this. Thank you!

  • Reply
    Julie
    January 6, 2012 at 11:14 am

    We put caramelized onions on just about everything! I’m going to try this on steaks over the weekend. I’ve never actually cooked them for over an hour (I usually go for about 30 minutes), so am really excited to give this “patience” thing a try!

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 6, 2012 at 3:21 pm

      Do you do it on low heat? You’re the second person to mention it taking 30 minutes! Whenever I go higher than low heat (even medium low!), they don’t caramelize. Maybe it’s my electric range?

      • Reply
        Julie
        January 7, 2012 at 2:22 pm

        Yep! I usually am on medium-low and with gas. I’ve got an electric range for the next 3 months so I’ll give it a try here and let you know what the comparison is!

  • Reply
    Katie
    January 6, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    that looks a lot easier than I thought!

  • Reply
    BusyWorkingMama
    January 7, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    Holy Moses that takes forever! I’ve never tried to make my own but now I’m intrigued. I love onions. I rarely cook without them!

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 7, 2012 at 7:19 pm

      Yeah, I think I put onions in just about everything. ๐Ÿ™‚ I can’t stand them raw though!

      • Reply
        BusyWorkingMama
        January 7, 2012 at 7:25 pm

        I’ve seen my 4 year old take a bite out of a raw onion like an apple! We like them both raw and cooked. We especially love raw in a three bean salad. I really want to try caramelizing them with your method!!

        • Reply
          The Type A Housewife
          January 9, 2012 at 8:00 am

          Oh, the thought of biting into an onion like that just makes me cringe! But good on her for being an adventurous eater. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply
    Teri Angcos
    January 8, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    Aahhh, thank you so much for your post and photos! I have been trying for the last hour to carmelize 2 large onions for the Cook’s Illustrated, Catalan Style Beef Stew recipe. It is taking FOREVER! The recipe stated 30-40 minutes…wrong. I still have to cook this stew for two hours. Guess we will be having soup for dinner tonight. Stew tomorrow night!
    I think that I should have used a larger based pot though. Any thoughts about that?
    Patience is certainly a virtue!

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 8, 2012 at 6:38 pm

      By any chance are you using an electric range? Because I’m starting to think there may be a discrepancy between cook times for caramelizing onions on an electric range vs. a gas range. For me, I can’t turn the heat above low and it always takes me a little over an hour–I have an electric range.

      Not sure about the pot size you’re using. Because the onions cook down a great deal, I’m never too concerned with making sure there’s only a single layer of them in the pan. But you definitely want enough room for them to breathe, otherwise they’ll kind of steam themselves and not caramelize. Sorry to hear about your dinner disaster–I have definitely had a few of those myself!

  • Reply
    Teri Angcos
    January 8, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    Good thought about electric vs gas. I am using gas. But, I do feel as though my low setting is a bit too low sometimes. And, I think the tall sides of the dutch oven did not help with losing some of the moisture fast enough for the carmelization process. I can’t recall having this problem before, usually I have very large sauce pan that I use to carmelize onions.

    The stew is in the oven now! I guess we’ll see what happens. Smells good, and I’ll be happy when I come home from work tomorrow that all I have to do is warm it! It just amazing what you can “google”! Glad I found your blog. The photos with time were incredibly helpful when I was getting so frustrated. Cheers! Have a good night!

    • Reply
      The Type A Housewife
      January 9, 2012 at 7:55 am

      Well, I hope your stew is worth the wait! I’m glad my blog could help you out & I hope you’ll stop back sometime. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply
    Toni
    January 14, 2012 at 7:11 am

    Those are great tips. I love caramel onions but never could get them just right. I will definitely be trying this.

  • Reply
    BusyWorkingMama
    December 25, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Yay, found it! About to try to caramelize onions this morning ๐Ÿ™‚ My commercial gas range is probably going to change the time frame a bit!

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      December 25, 2012 at 11:13 am

      I miss having a gas range. ๐Ÿ™ We looked into installing one, but it would be insanely expensive since our house is on a slab. I guess it’s easier if there’s a crawl space? Anyway, I hope the onions turn out well for you!

  • Reply
    Elisa
    December 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm

    As I write this my mouth is watering. The onions will be placed in a fillo shell with Brie and raspberry. Looking forward to caramelizing the onions! Thanks for your post. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      December 31, 2012 at 1:18 pm

      That sounds so good! I hope they turned out well! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply
    Mary @ Fit and Fed
    March 18, 2013 at 4:42 pm

    Interesting! I use a gas range and it has never taken me that long, but still, I should quantify exactly how long it does take me so I won’t get frustrated or not leave enough time. I’m thinking that it takes me 30-40 minutes.

    • Reply
      Mary @ Fit and Fed
      March 19, 2013 at 10:36 am

      Caramelized a large onion yesterday, it took about 45 minutes and I use at least twice as much oil as you (perhaps my large onion is larger than yours).

      • Reply
        Kiersten
        March 19, 2013 at 6:16 pm

        Yeah, I think there’s definitely a difference between gas and electric ranges. I caramelize onions all the time and it never takes me less than an hour, but it usually takes me a little bit longer…

  • Reply
    Josh Kreydatus
    April 12, 2013 at 4:23 pm

    I did everything exactly as you said and I couldn’t be happier! About 60 mins into it I added ginger (powder) and spicy Madras curry, also powder, to the mixture. OMG rocking my world I tell ya!

    Next time I will have to do it with fresh ginger..

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful tip ! Beautiful website as well.

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      April 12, 2013 at 6:37 pm

      Ooh, spicy caramelized onions–I love it! I bet they’d be great with a piece of naan. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Reply
    Tom
    June 15, 2013 at 5:58 pm

    trying it now. would go great with my epic grilled burger.

  • Reply
    Melissa Klotz
    August 9, 2013 at 12:37 am

    Thanks for the tip, and a thorough one at that!! I tried caramelizing onions the other night, they didn’t burn, but they didn’t quite get caramelized. I think it also has to do with the type of onion you use, vidalia onions have more sugar, so maybe they would caramelize quicker?

    • Reply
      Kiersten
      August 11, 2013 at 7:45 pm

      I usually don’t caramelize sweet onions, since they’re sweet to begin with. Sometimes if your pan is too crowded, the onions won’t caramelize–they kind of sweat and steam, but never turn that nice brown color!

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