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How do you caramelize an onion?

Updated on February 13, 2013
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.


Choose Your Onion

First choose firm onions, with a good thick, glossy skin. Once the onions have lost layers of skin they begin to lose flavor. The slightly flattened onions are supposed to have a more intense flavor. Consider different varieties of onions for different flavors and intensities.

Red Onions: are sweet enough to eat raw but are delicious grilled or lightly sauteed. Caramelization of these is also possible, although they do lose color.

Yellow Onions : In my opinion these are the best onions for caramelizing. They are yellow because they have more sulfur in them and this also gives them a more complex flavor than red or white onions. Caramelization just enhanced these flavors.

White Onions: Cleaner and tangier than yellow onions, best for Hispanic dishes and more delicate flavored dishes.

Sweet Onion: These would include; Vidalia, Walla Walla, Sweet Imperial, Texas Spring Sweet, Texas 1015Y, Carzalia Sweet, Oso Sweet, Arizona, Granex, and Maui. These are mild onions best suited for being sliced on sandwiches and eaten raw in salads and such. These are the worst for caramelizing because while they have a high sugar content they have a delicate flavor that is easily overwhelmed.

Cippolini Onion - small flattened onion imported from Italy. Caramelize these whole for a fabulous addition to vegetable dishes.

Caramelizing Onions in the Crock-pot

I like cooking ahead and storing food so that I can create a recipe at a moment's notice. By using a slow cooker, or a crock-pot, you can caramelize alot of onions from your garden or the farmer's market all at once and freeze them for future use.

I have read some sources that advise to NEVER freeze onions but I have never had a problem. If in doubt, make a small amount and test freeze them.

Prepare your onions by peeling and slicing (or leaving whole, as in the case of pearl onions or Cippolini).

Drizzle a bit of olive oil in the bottom of the crock-pot. Add onions and then drizzle a bit more oil on the onion. Set the crock-pot to low and cook for approximately 12 hours, checking occasionally after 8 hours or so to make sure that they are cooking and not drying out or burning.

Once they are done let them cool and freeze them in recipe sized portions in freezer bags or freezer containers.

Gratin made with carmelized onions is aromatic and delicious!
Gratin made with carmelized onions is aromatic and delicious!

Carmelized Onion, Potato & Chicken Gratin

3 lbs potatoes- I prefer the red skinned ones for this

2 cups caramelized onions

2 tbs butter

1/2 lb Gruyere, emmental, or swiss cheese grated

1 1/3 c heavy cream

1 1/2 lbs cooked chicken (boned and cut in smallish pieces). (I usually poach mine for this dish, so I can have the broth for soup but sauteeing is fine)

Simmer the potatoes until tender. Drain (keep the potato water for is wonderful!) Mix the potatoes and the onions, and season to taste. Arrange half in a layer in 2 buttered 13 x9 casseroles. sprinkle with half the cheese, and then arrange the chicken over the cheese. Place the rest of the potato onion mixture over the chicken. Pour the cream over and then sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Dot with butter. Bake uncovered at 400 for 30 minutes or until cream thickens. Remove from oven and broil until the top is golden and bubbly 2 or 3 minutes.

serves 8

Caramelized Onion, Mushroom and Fontina Pizza

I originally found this in Bon Appetit Magazine years ago and adapted it to our tastes.

2 large uncooked pizza dough rounds fitted into pans.

1/2 stick unsalted butter, divided

1 tablespoons olive oil

3 cups caramelized onions

2 pounds mushrooms, sliced

6 garlic cloves, minced

2 cups dry white wine

1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary

1 tsp dried chipotle (optional)

Melt butter with oil in an heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Add mushrooms, and garlic. Sauté 4 minutes. Add wine and simmer until almost all liquid is absorbed, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes. Add onions, chipotle and rosemary; season with salt and pepper.

Position rack in bottom third of oven. Preheat oven to 500°F at least 30 minutes before baking. Place pizza crust on pizza pan and sprinkle with 1/2 cup cheese. Scatter onions over cheese. Scatter mushrooms over onions. Sprinkle with salt.

Bake until crust is deep brown, about 6 minutes longer. Using large spatula, carefully transfer pizzas to cutting board. Let rest 1 minute. Slice into wedges.

This should make 2 pizzas


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    • pakpub profile image

      pakpub 7 years ago from Ohio

      That chicken dish sounds yummy.

    • Angela Harris profile image

      Angela Harris 7 years ago from Around the USA

      I love caramelized onions and had never thought of using a slow cooker to do this. Thanks for the tips! I'm definitely trying the first recipe. Sounds sooo good.

    • dario415 profile image

      dario415 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Well this one i can answer for you. Cut the onion diced or whichever style you want. Heat skillet on medium with olive oil,just enough to coat the bottom with 1 table spoon of butter and salt and pepper added when onions are in the skillet. They say to caramize them its takes 5 minutes. Thats if you like them with a bite to them still. To get them caramized to the point that they're like a slimy but sitting in a nice onion cream like sauce made from the olive oil and butter and the sweat from the onion makes a good topping for a steak,burgers and whatever else you want to put it on. Cooking time is going to be 20 minute max.After you put the onion in skillet give it a nice stir to make sure everybody gets the love in the skillet.Make sure you use a wooden spoon,you want to take it easy on food when you cook.You dont want to rough it up.Let it cook in place for 2-3 minutes to get them soft.Stir then do again.Repeat this till you see your caramalized desire. Try that and let me know......

    • profile image

      jason 7 years ago

      Sorry, misread what you wrote as having more sugar or less sugar than other onions but that isn't quite what you said. Sweet onions have a higher moisture content, however, which makes them take longer to caramelize. Sprinkling with a little salt helps take moisture out and promote the process. Disagree slightly about the flavor getting overwhelmed. Thx!

    • profile image

      jason 7 years ago

      The information given above about Sweet Onions is inaccurate. They do not have a higher sugar content than any other onion. It is the lack of sulfur that gives them a sweeter flavor by comparison.

    • cgull8m profile image

      cgull8m 10 years ago from North Carolina

      Lovely Hub, helps me to cut onions better the next time. When I cut unions I used to make a small cut at the ends to make the skin peel off, it works fine, but I never used to get them cut properly, the video helped.

    • profile image

      aman 10 years ago

      Yummy,i will try it today.Thanks.

    • Whitney05 profile image

      Whitney 10 years ago from Georgia

      Hm... That sounds interesting, although I'm not a big onion fan.

    • Marye Audet profile image

      Marye Audet 10 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      Thanks Lela

      Having hte ingedients ready makes things so much quicker

    • Lela Davidson profile image

      Lela Davidson 10 years ago from Bentonville, Arkansas

      Cool idea. I like freezing things ahead too. I would never have thought of onions!