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Browning Onions Takes Forever


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My question is absurdely simple, yet I can't tell you how many times I've impatiently burned onions by turning up the flame when trying to brown a big batch of onions in a large Le Cruset pot in preparation for onion soup, or even just trying to get a few brown strands in a smaller pan to go atop a hamburger. Love that sweet caramely taste, but I get restless standing over a pot of onions for an hour! Can I get away with turning the flame down to very low and just leaving it and coming back and stirring it every 15 minutes, say? It'd probably take two hours that way, but I could live with that. Do you brown them in all butter, or half butter half vegetable oil? Maybe add a little water every so often to lessen the likelihood of them burning? Guess there's no easy way to speed it up.

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Cook them under cover until completely melted-about 45 minutes. No need to stir more than once or twice. then turn up the heat and brown while stirring. This should only take five minutes.

i once bought a can of fried onions, thinking this was a good idea. They had barely been cooked at all and were still crunchy. What a missed opportunity.

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My question is absurdely simple, yet I can't tell you how many times I've impatiently burned onions by turning up the flame when trying to brown a big batch of onions in a large Le Cruset pot in preparation for onion soup, or even just trying to get a few brown strands in a smaller pan to go atop a hamburger.  Love that sweet caramely taste, but I get restless standing over a pot of onions for an hour!  Can I get away with turning the flame down to very low and just leaving it and coming back and stirring it every 15 minutes, say?  It'd probably take two hours that way, but I could live with that.  Do you brown them in all butter, or half butter half vegetable oil?  Maybe add a little water every so often to lessen the likelihood of them burning?  Guess there's no easy way to speed it up.

I use a very small amount of oil and butter. Low heat will cause them to stew, you need the water released to evapoate. You're actually cooking the sugars not the onions to get the lovely dark caramel.

Veni Vidi Vino - I came, I saw, I drank.
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I use very high heat and deglaze as I go along. Turn the heat all the way up and stir often, and when you have a nice fond start on the bottom of the pan, deglaze with a bit of water and scrape and stir. This redistributes the sugars that were stuck on the bottom of the pan and gives you a nice even color. You may have to deglaze several times but it works.

Thats one method of doing it. Another is to just simply use very very low heat and wait for an hour or two (or more).

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First of all, Le Creuset is a bad choice for this task. The cast iron won't respond very quickly, so if your onions start cooking too quickly you will not be able to save them very easily. Additionally, enameled cast iron is notoriously not good for browning. And finally, Le Creuset really isn't thick enough to spread the heat around and avoid a "burn ring" when doing this sort of thing (I always use an aluminum disk under my Le Creuset to spread out the heat).

Browning onions... it all depends on what you want the onions to be like. If you have a large amount of onions that you want meltingly tender and broken down almost to a mush, you can put them in a large, even-heating pan on very low heat with the lipid of your choice and a disk of parchment or wax paper cut to the size of the pan placed directly on top of the onions. Stir every so often, and resign yourself to the fact that this is a long process. Once the onions are softened and broken down to the degree you prefer, they will be mostly browned. If you want further browning, finish over high heat (you will need a responsive pan to avoid burning). If you want the onions to retain more texture (browned on the outside, but still with some resistance to the tooth) then there is no substitute for high heat and cooking in appropriately-sized batches.

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You can't hurry love. And you can't hurry onions. For a simple garnish or for a topping for pizza or a hamburger I use a cast iron skillet (not enameled) and it takes no more than a half hour to make thinly sliced onions tender and caramel-sweet over moderate heat, uncovered. I like them when some are starting to blacken and crisp. My feeling is that high heat can get them crispy, but if you cook on high heat the whole time your onions just won't have time to get tender before they start to burn. Unless, as the previous post suggests, you want them to have a bit of a bite and blackened as well.

The more onions you have in the pot the more moisture you have, so cooking onions for an onion soup would take longer, like maybe 45 minutes or so. But I would stll do it uncovered, and I would still use a med-low heat. I haven't made onion soup in years, but that's my memory.

Butter or olive oil? Depends what you are making or what taste you want, no?

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Pretty much as others have said.

Start them frying, stir well.

Turn down low, cover and leave for a long time, stirring when you remember.

Once everything is as soft as you want, remove the lid and turn the heat up just a little, so you can drive off the excess moisture that has cooked out of the onions. Now stir at least every 5 minutes. If you want to force the pace, turn it up higher and stir constantly until things are brown enough, or you get either too hungry or too bored!

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch ... you must first invent the universe." - Carl Sagan

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There are a couple ways to speed browning. One, as noted, is to salt upfront. Only a little is needed. Salt will allow moisture from the onions to exude sooner and more quickly so that it will evaporate sooner, necessary for browning. Another is to add a pinch of baking soda. Raising the pH a bit will also speed browning as Maillard reactions come quicker in a less acidic environment, the reason lye washes are used on pretzels.

Kevin

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I find adding some salt seems to encourage them to cook and brown a little faster. Just a little bit - a pinch or two - seems to do the trick.

There are a couple ways to speed browning. One, as noted, is to salt upfront. Only a little is needed. Salt will allow moisture from the onions to exude sooner and more quickly so that it will evaporate sooner, necessary for browning.

I thought you did not want to salt onions to encourage browning. Alton Brown has said a few times that salt encourages sweating and if you're going for browned/caramelized onions to wait til they've already started to get golden to add the salt. I always wait on salt with my onions, but do everything else as above: higher heat and fat, well stirred to start; turn down the heat til all is melty and golden; then up the heat a little to brown.

"Life is a combination of magic and pasta." - Frederico Fellini

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thanks for the post. I had the same question last week, when a big pot of onions just refused to carmelize, though after 30+ minutes they were cooked to near melting. I couldn't recall having had this problem before and tried hard to figure out what I had done differently this time. I tried raising the heat at the end, but the only carmelization I got was on the sugars that were clinging to the pan.

Rightly or wrongly, I decided that I'd used too small a pan for such a large batch of onions, and added salt too early, so that they ended up steaming rather than carmelizing.


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Pretty much as others have said.

Start them frying, stir well.

Turn down low, cover and leave for a long time, stirring when you remember.

Once everything is as soft as you want, remove the lid and turn the heat up just a little, so you can drive off the excess moisture that has cooked out of the onions. Now stir at least every 5 minutes. If you want to force the pace, turn it up higher and stir constantly until things are brown enough, or you get either too hungry or too bored!

"or you get either too hungry or too bored!" You hit it right on.

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My question is absurdely simple, yet I can't tell you how many times I've impatiently burned onions by turning up the flame when trying to brown a big batch of onions in a large Le Cruset pot in preparation for onion soup, or even just trying to get a few brown strands in a smaller pan to go atop a hamburger.  Love that sweet caramely taste, but I get restless standing over a pot of onions for an hour!  Can I get away with turning the flame down to very low and just leaving it and coming back and stirring it every 15 minutes, say?  It'd probably take two hours that way, but I could live with that.  Do you brown them in all butter, or half butter half vegetable oil?  Maybe add a little water every so often to lessen the likelihood of them burning?  Guess there's no easy way to speed it up.

I use a very small amount of oil and butter. Low heat will cause them to stew, you need the water released to evapoate. You're actually cooking the sugars not the onions to get the lovely dark caramel.

Actually cooking the sugars, not the onions, to get the dark color makes perfect sense to me. I'm thinking of almost dry pure sugar in a pan over heat when it turns to pure caramel with that amber color.

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Cook them under cover until completely melted-about 45 minutes. No need to stir more than once or twice. then turn up the heat and brown while stirring. This should only take five minutes.

i once bought a can of fried onions, thinking this was a good idea. They had barely been cooked at all and were still crunchy. What a missed opportunity.

So melt them first by steaming them with the cover on, then cover off, heat up, stirring constantly to brown. Makes sense.

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Yes. and a pinch of salt is a good idea, as suggested above.

One of the biggest and most repeated recipe lies is 'fry the onions for a few minutes until soft'. The great Richard Olney is honest, routinely specifying a half-hour.

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Once when in a hurry I microwaved sliced onions prior to putting them in the cast iron frying pan to brown with some butter and salt. It certainly sped things up, and I don't remember them being particularly weird.

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We should understand, in case it is not clear, that we're talking about maillardization, not caramelization.

HUH? :blink: I thought that maillardization is what happens with proteins and caramelization was with sugars. I don't think onions have protein, but I know they're loaded with sugars. :wacko:

"Commit random acts of senseless kindness"

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Wow. What a bunch a bunch of responses. The best advice I can give is one I have given before: consult Lora Brody's wonderful book "Slow Cooker Cooking" and use her recipe for onions in the slow cooker. One uses five or six pounds (!) of onions and a whole stick of butter and fourteen hours later you have a perfect batch of browned, tasty onions you can freeze and save for future use. By simply reading the recipe and using logic it shouldn't work; the onions don't get up to a caramelization temp. in a slow cooker. And leaving the lid on doesn't allow a great deal of moisture to evaporate. BUT IT WORKS! I am a total convert and use this recipe for all my caramelized onions, and I can do enough and stash away for pizzas, foccacias, etc.

Ray

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We should understand, in case it is not clear, that we're talking about maillardization, not caramelization.

HUH? :blink: I thought that maillardization is what happens with proteins and caramelization was with sugars. I don't think onions have protein, but I know they're loaded with sugars. :wacko:

From What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke:

. . . when small amounts of sugars or starches (which, remember, are made up of sugar units) are heated in the presence of proteins or amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) a different set of high-temperature chemical reactions takes place:  the Maillard reactions . . .

. . . Maillard reactions are responsible for the good flavor of heat-browned, carbohydrate- and protein-containing foods such as grilled and roasted meats (yes, there are sugars in meats), bread crusts and onions.  "Caramelized" onions do indeed taste sweet, because in addition to Maillard reactions. ,heating makes their starch break down into free sugars, which can then truly caramelize.

He offers more in What Einstein Told His Cook 2: The Sequel: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science:

. . . Both a sugar molecule's carbonyl group and a protein molecule's amino group must be present if Maillard browning, also known as sugar-amine browning, is to take place.  Heat accellerates the Maillard browning reactions, but they can take place at temperatures as low as 122F (50C). . .

. . . In contraindication, the browning of pure sugar or other carbohydrates at temperatures higher than about 250F (120C) -- in the absence of an amino acid of other nitrogen-containing compound -- takes place by a completely different set f complex chemical reactions called caramelization.  Many chefs seem to love the word caramelize, and use it indiscriminately to describe any food that turns brown upon being coked. But meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other protein-containing foods to not caramelize.  They simply brown.

Dried, raw onions are made up of about 37 percent sugars and 8 percent proteins, so they predominately brown by the Maillard, or sugar-amine, reactions. . .

. . . If we cook the onions uncovered, the released cel juices will quickly boil off and the temperature will rise from around 212F (100C) to perhaps 300F (149C) where the Maillard browning reactions proceed rapidly.  The fact that some of the Maillard reactions are sweet is perhaps one reason why cooks are enticed into using the sugar word caramelize for this process.  What they really mean, however, is taking the onions to a soft, golden tan -- the color of caramel candies -- but stopping short of actually browning them. . .

. . . If we continue cooking beyond that sage, Monsieur Maillard really goes to town and we wind up with honest-to-goodness fried onions with their intense "browned" flavors.

. . . By simply reading the recipe and using logic it shouldn't work; the onions don't get up to a caramelization temp. in a slow cooker. And leaving the lid on doesn't allow a great deal of moisture to evaporate. BUT IT WORKS!

This is the Maillard reaction working at a temperature where it is clear that caramelization can't happen. Perfect example.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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So I'm making stock yesterday, and started simmering 44 lbs of browned bones in two stock pots.

In the meantime, instead of following Wayne Gisslen's method of adding the tomato product, sachet and mirepoix all at once and simmering for 6-8 hours, I tried the CIA's method of simmering for about 5 hours then adding the browned mirepoix and sachet.

They say, it takes about 15-20 minutes to brown the onions in the mirepoix, then 1-2 minutes of browning the tomato paste in the mirepoix and then adding it to the stock.

Well, it took 5 hours and the mirepoix (400F) was just releasing its juices and taking on a pale brownish yellow color. I decided that I can't stay up all night and dumped half of the mirepoix (before adding the paste) into the one stock pot in which I had already added 1 quart of home canned tomato puree and the sachet.

For the other pot I browned the mirepoix a little more, ran out of patience and added the paste. It took about 15 minutes before the paste took on the "rusty color" and the aroma was sweet and aromatic.

I added that to the other pot.

It was interesting to see both stock pots next to each other. One tannish brown in color, the other (with the paste) mildly reddish brown in color.

After 2-3 more hours of skimming and simmering, (the football game was on), I tasted each one separately. Equally good, but different!

Tastiest stock I ever made, because I browned the mirepoix (not burned it in a skillet) more than ever before, and tried the browned paste too.

Each pot got its own same sachet (black whole peppercorns, garlic cloves, whole cloves, fresh parsley stems, dried thyme and bay leaves all tied up with cheesecloth and string).

So the CIA must have been having its own joke about 15-20 minutes for the mirepoix and waiting 5 hours to add it to the stock. As the mirepoix took the whole 5 hours and the stock was simmering the whole 5 hours too! So there is something to adding the mirepoix later in the stock making process, unlike Wayne Gisslen's recommended method. After years of stock making, I'm changing my technique. What great tasting stock! All for having the patience to deal with the browning of the onions in the mirepoix!

BTW: There is something good afterall about Minnesota winters, which is that the garage serves as a fine refrigerator/freezer. Too late to can the stock last night.

doc

Edited by deltadoc (log)
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Wow. What a bunch a bunch of responses. The best advice I can give is one I have given before: consult Lora Brody's wonderful book "Slow Cooker Cooking" and use her recipe for onions in the slow cooker. One uses five or six pounds (!) of onions and a whole stick of butter and fourteen hours later you have a perfect batch of browned, tasty onions you can freeze and save for future use. By simply reading the recipe and using logic it shouldn't work; the onions don't get up to a caramelization temp. in a slow cooker. And leaving the lid on doesn't allow a great deal of moisture to evaporate. BUT IT WORKS! I am a total convert and use this recipe for all my caramelized onions, and I can do enough and stash away for pizzas, foccacias, etc.

Ray

I second the slow cooker method.. it takes a while - but it is completely unattended and you can do a bunch at one time and save them for later...

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We should understand, in case it is not clear, that we're talking about maillardization, not caramelization.

HUH? :blink: I thought that maillardization is what happens with proteins and caramelization was with sugars. I don't think onions have protein, but I know they're loaded with sugars. :wacko:

From What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke:

. . . when small amounts of sugars or starches (which, remember, are made up of sugar units) are heated in the presence of proteins or amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) a different set of high-temperature chemical reactions takes place:  the Maillard reactions . . .

. . . Maillard reactions are responsible for the good flavor of heat-browned, carbohydrate- and protein-containing foods such as grilled and roasted meats (yes, there are sugars in meats), bread crusts and onions.  "Caramelized" onions do indeed taste sweet, because in addition to Maillard reactions. ,heating makes their starch break down into free sugars, which can then truly caramelize.

He offers more in What Einstein Told His Cook 2: The Sequel: Further Adventures in Kitchen Science:

. . . Both a sugar molecule's carbonyl group and a protein molecule's amino group must be present if Maillard browning, also known as sugar-amine browning, is to take place.  Heat accellerates the Maillard browning reactions, but they can take place at temperatures as low as 122F (50C). . .

. . . In contraindication, the browning of pure sugar or other carbohydrates at temperatures higher than about 250F (120C) -- in the absence of an amino acid of other nitrogen-containing compound -- takes place by a completely different set f complex chemical reactions called caramelization.  Many chefs seem to love the word caramelize, and use it indiscriminately to describe any food that turns brown upon being coked. But meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, and other protein-containing foods to not caramelize.  They simply brown.

Dried, raw onions are made up of about 37 percent sugars and 8 percent proteins, so they predominately brown by the Maillard, or sugar-amine, reactions. . .

. . . If we cook the onions uncovered, the released cel juices will quickly boil off and the temperature will rise from around 212F (100C) to perhaps 300F (149C) where the Maillard browning reactions proceed rapidly.  The fact that some of the Maillard reactions are sweet is perhaps one reason why cooks are enticed into using the sugar word caramelize for this process.  What they really mean, however, is taking the onions to a soft, golden tan -- the color of caramel candies -- but stopping short of actually browning them. . .

. . . If we continue cooking beyond that sage, Monsieur Maillard really goes to town and we wind up with honest-to-goodness fried onions with their intense "browned" flavors.

. . . By simply reading the recipe and using logic it shouldn't work; the onions don't get up to a caramelization temp. in a slow cooker. And leaving the lid on doesn't allow a great deal of moisture to evaporate. BUT IT WORKS!

This is the Maillard reaction working at a temperature where it is clear that caramelization can't happen. Perfect example.

AHA! Thanks, SLK!

"Commit random acts of senseless kindness"

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