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Food & Recipes

This Hack for Making Caramelized Onions Cuts the Time in Half

Caramelizing onions doesn't have to take forever.


The phrase “quick caramelized onions” probably sounds like an oxymoron to anyone who’s ever carefully sautéed them into slow-cooked perfection. But it turns out, there’s a simple technique that cuts the time in half — and makes the result taste even better.

J. Kenji López-Alt from Serious Eats tested a few ideas and kindly shared what worked best with the rest of us. The chef went through 20 pounds of onions in the process, so he was clearly determined to figure it out.

Most traditional methods call for tossing sliced onions into a pan with some butter and stirring them over low heat for about 30 to 40 minutes. Some recipes include broth and other ingredients, but the common denominator is that you’ll end up standing over the pan for quite some time while you wait for the onions to brown and develop a soft, jammy texture.

López-Alt was able to drastically reduce that to only 15 or 20 minutes with two easy adjustments: adding a pinch of baking soda and cranking up the heat.

The heat aspect might seem counterintuitive — the whole point of caramelizing onions slowly is to keep them from charring in the pan. But López-Alt says using a medium-high or even the highest flame setting will work if you occasionally add splashes of water. “Every time they threaten to start burning, just add a couple tablespoons of water to even out the cooking, and you’re smooth-sailing once again,” he explains. 

As for the baking soda, López-Alt says the key is moderation: “While large amounts of baking soda dramatically increased the browning rate (by over 50 percent!), any more than a teaspoon per pound of chopped onions proved to be too much.” You don’t want your French onion soup or onion-topped burger to actually taste like baking soda.

Of course, tricks like these often end up cutting corners when it comes to flavor, but López-Alt claims it does the exact opposite in this case. He writes, “To be honest, the flavor developed in that short amount of time is actually deeper and more complex than the standard, slow-cooked method.”

Less time and more flavor? We’ll definitely be using this technique from now on!

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