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Onions for Soups and Sauces - Sweat, Sauté or Caramelize?

Updated on March 28, 2020
Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty collects various recipes from past generations and is interested in early American history, the Civil War, and the 19th century.

Red and yellow onions.
Red and yellow onions. | Source

It's probably illegal to make soups, stews and casseroles without plenty of onions.

— Maggie Waldron, American author

Onions and Garlic Are Leading Ingredients In Many Dishes

Onions are included in the culinary ingredients known as aromatics. All of these edibles are fragrant plants or spices and contain volatile oils that enhance the flavor of foods. When you walk by a garden of aromatics, you can smell the different plants easily and some might make your eyes water. Wild onions can be especially strong.

The oils in onions, garlic, and peppers in particular are helpful in fighting off some respiratory infections, because when they are ingested, their volatile oils fill in the indentations in our body's cells in which viruses like to attach and inject proteins! The oils act as shield/.

Aromatics are part of enjoyable and healthy eating!

When I first learned to cook, I could slice, chop, and sauté onions; caramelize them accidentally (I discovered the technique by chance); and burn them quickly ; but I had no knowledge of the technique of sweating onions for sauces, soups and stocks. An easy method of sweating onions is described below.

I've also gathered together a group of cooking heroes that have helped me not only to learn new culinary means and madness, but to laugh no matter what circumstances life and evil clowns throw into my path. If you don't know them, you may also enjoy the Kitchen Insider, Alton Brown, Skinny and Mini, Justin Wilson, and the Swedish Chef.

An onion can make people cry but there's never been a vegetable that can make people laugh.

— Will Rogers, Humorist
Sweat happens before Saute at low heat for about 10 minutes. Saute is hotter and faster.
Sweat happens before Saute at low heat for about 10 minutes. Saute is hotter and faster. | Source

How to Sweat an Onion

Sweated onions are flavorful, cooks at a lower heat and take about twice as long to prepare than do sauted onions, which are cooked at high heat.

Obtain a heavy skillet, wok, or thick-sided pot or Dutch oven and be prepared to spend a little time with this techniques and your onions. You can add garlic, as these instructions indicate, or you can leave it out altogether.


  • Chop your onions to about a ¼” dice, all about the same size.
  • Mince one ot two cloves of garlic, to taste, after peeling it.  
  • Heat your skillet, wok, pot or Dutch oven over medium-low heat until it is pretty hot.
  • Add only 1 or 2 Tablespoons of olive, vegetable, or peanut oil to the cooking pan, lift the pan from the burner, using a potholder, and swirl the oil around the bottom completely. Replace the pan on the burner.
  • Be patient and allow the the oil to heat through completely for about 10 seconds.
  • Add in your diced onion and about 1/2 teaspoon of salt, which will flavor the aromatics and draw out some unneeded water.
  • Try the heat of the burner up slowly until you hear a low sizzle, not a loud sizzle that indicates burning potential. if you hear a snap, crackle, and pop, reduce the heat.
  • With a wooden spoon or rubberized spatula, constantly move around the onion and garlic as it sweats.
  • Add the minced garlic and continue to stir for up to 10 minutes until the onions are translucent.

Using Sweated Onions

Particularly if you are using a dutch oven, you can drain excess oil and water from the onion and garlic and continue with any good soup, stock, or sauce recipe.

“There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars.”

— Charles Dickens, 'A Christmas Carol' (1843)

Justin Wilson Cooks With Onions and Makes Gumbo

Justin Wilson - Best Onion Cook

Justin Wilson's Homegrown Louisiana Cookin'
Justin Wilson's Homegrown Louisiana Cookin'
Chopped or diced onions, green peppers, and celery make up the trinity of Louisiana Cajun cuisines. Chef Justin Wilson is the best chef for onions I've seen, coaxing out every bit of flavor.

Justin Wilson Stories

Alton Brown: How Brown Was My Onion

Caramelizing Onions

I learned to caramelize onions one time that I was sauteing 1/4" thick onion slices in butter. I needed to leave the stove, so turned down the heat and covered the pan. 30 minutes later, I returned to find caramelized onions, slightly burnt on one edge of the pan. The rest tasted fine, and I learned later to add just a bit of sugar, salt, and pepper; but there are variations on the technique you can try.

For 1 Cup of caramelized onions that can be stored in a plastic container with lid for 1 week in the refrigerator, follow the method below. Or have a look at Alton Brown's method in the video to the right. Caramelized onions book for a longer time period than sweated onions and taste sweeter. The make a nice addition to barbecue sauces.

How To Caramelize Onions

Peel and cut 2 pounds of Vidalia, Spanish, or Walla Walla onions into medium-width slices. Heat 1 TBSP vegetable oil in a skillet over high heat. When hot, add 1/2 tsp salt and 1 tsp brown sugar and stir. Place the onion slices into the skillet and stir to coat. Cook while stirring occasionally for 5 minutes - don't leave the pan.

When onion begin to soften, reduce the burner heat to medium and stir the onions frequently now and watch unto onions are a uniform deep brown and somewhat sticky. This will consume 30 - 40 minutes of times. If you hear sizzling, reduce the heat until it stops and if onions do not brown at the lower temperature, raise it slowly until they do. Add pepper to taste and onions are done.

Using Caramelized Onions

The caramelized onions can be used in sauces, on sandwiches, and on pizza, to name a few. Try them with your favorite recipes, especially your homemade barbecue sauces.

There was an Old Man of Kilkenny,

Who never had more than a penny;

He spent all that money,

In onions and honey,

That wayward Old Man of Kilkenny.

— Edward Lear, "Nonsense Books"; Inventor of the Limerick
Wok sauteing.
Wok sauteing.

The Old Sauté

Sauteing onions is another one of the basics for onion preparation that brings out the flavor of this vegetable before adding it to soups and sauces or other dishes.

It is important to heat the sauté pan, skillet, or wok to high heat before adding the fat in which you will sauté the onions.

View the video to the right of Chefs Skinny and Mini, Doug Miller and Chuck Love, sauteing onions.

The Skinny and Mini Way

An Unexpected Onion

A friend went to a fellowship group at his church one evening, taking a prepared dish for a potluck supper. The group enjoyed a delicious meal, after which one of the members passed around a plate of brownies. Many people selected a brownie and when they bit into them together, made sour faces.

It seems the brownie cook added diced onions as a show-and-tell about how life can hold the unexpected. An unexpected event for the brownie baker that night was the quick breakup of the party to go home - or someplace else for dessert. He had expected them to be amused or thoughtful in response to the onions...

Swedish Chef and the Onion Cake

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Patty Inglish MS

Comments and Additions

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    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      8 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      I miss Justin Wilson a lot, but cook from his recipes whenever I can.

    • Historicus profile image

      Jerry Desko 

      8 years ago from Cashtown, PA

      Patty, great blog. If you don't use onions and garlic, you should not be allowed in a kitchen. I use both in recipes and marinades. I also grow both.

      Unfortunately, I have just run out of onions and now I have to buy them in the grocery store.

      I love the Justin Wilson video. I use to watch him all the time when he was on PBS.

      Keep up the good work!

    • Loren's Gem profile image

      Loren's Gem 

      10 years ago from Istanbul, Turkey

      Love onions - fresh or cooked! Besides, onions are one of the major ingredients in almost every cuisine. Great hub and thanks for sharing! :-)

    • ineveryoneheart profile image


      10 years ago

      Thankyou for telling the way that how to fry onions , great tasty hub. thanks.

    • ethel smith profile image

      Ethel Smith 

      10 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

      Love onions too. I like those speciality chesses that have onions and chives added also. Very useful hub.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      10 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      Half a recipe maybe, but if you like caramelized onions, somethimes that's enough! Thanks, Hello, hello.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 

      10 years ago from London, UK

      I must be French, I love onion and garlic. Thank you for this great recipe.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile imageAUTHOR

      Patty Inglish MS 

      10 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      valery elias - I enjoy a lot of types of onions top!

      drbj - The brownie maker may have ruined dinner completely with that one.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      10 years ago from south Florida

      Love onions cooked any way, carmelized or not, so enjoyed this fascinating hub. But inserting onions into brownies - that's sacrilege and an awful waste of both cooked onions and brownies.

    • valery elias profile image

      valery elias 

      10 years ago

      Love cooking with onions, whatever the type. Great hub.


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