Caramelized onions a great base for savory dishes

  • By Jan Roberts-Dominguez Herald Columnist
  • Thursday, April 10, 2014 2:13pm
  • Life

Sometimes a fresh idea for a story takes off where the previous story ends. Most recently, my Ode to Croutons brought me back in touch with one of my favorite ingredients: caramelized onions.

It was during the making of French Onion Soup, with its crunchy-cheesy crouton floating atop a wine-laced beefy broth teeming with caramelized onions, that I recalled why I loved this extraordinary treatment for onions. That such a potent, raucous vegetable in its raw state is tamed into delectable submission when exposed to gentle heat and time on the burner is a culinary miracle.

Any globe onion will work, even sweet onions. You’ll notice that sweet onions produce a bit more liquid (because of their high water content), but after the liquid cooks away, the high sugar content in the sweet onions makes the caramelizing process move along nicely.

Once your pile of zesty onion slices has transformed into a savory sweet offering, your plan should be to keep it on hand for a multitude of purposes. Indeed, with a batch of caramelized onions in the refrigerator or freezer, injecting an extra depth of sophisticated flavor into your everyday meal construction becomes easy:

Stir them into a batch of mashed potatoes or steamed rice.

Layer them onto your deli sandwiches and burgers.

Tuck them into a grilled cheese sandwich or panini prior to cooking.

Drape them onto a freshly-baked pizza (flavor combos that are particularly complimentary to caramelized onions include Gorgonzola and Proscuitto; sausage, arugula, and sun-dried tomatoes; goat cheese and fresh basil; crispy bits of bacon and fresh diced tomatoes; ham, grilled potato and Jarlsburg cheese)

Add them to a batch of scrambled eggs.

Toss them with pasta and just about any sauce, from a creamy Alfredo to a zesty tomato.

Dress up your freshly grilled steaks, chicken, pork tenderloins and fish.

Use them to make a quick sauce for roast chicken by combining with half a cup of homemade chicken broth and a generous splash of cream.

After sauteing a batch of green beans or broccoli, add the onions and heat through before serving.

Smash a bit of blue cheese into them and serve as a tasty spread alongside a sliced baguette for a quick appetizer.

Serve them alongside a plate of charcuterie and cheese.

Layer them over the bottom of a pie crust then follow any basic quiche recipe.

Caramelized Onions

Makes 3 to 4 cups of caramelized onions

This is a process that requires patience on your part. It can’t be rushed. Keep the temperature medium-low to low so the sugars in the onions have a chance to caramelize rather than burn. Don’t feel that this means you need to hover by the stove. Indeed, once the onions have softened and begun to brown, just check on them every 10 minutes and give them a gentle stir with the flat side of a spatula to scrape up all the cooked on bits of onion that are building on the bottom of the pot. This is where a ton of flavor is lurking and its important to incorporate it back into the onions during the process.

4 tablespoons butter

2 1/2 (about 6 medium) yellow onions, peeled, quartered root to tip, then sliced very thin (1/8-inch wide).

Salt and ground white pepper to taste

Place the butter and onions in a large, wide, deep heavy-bottomed pot, over medium heat. As the butter melts, toss the onions to coat them with the butter. Keep tossing them every few minutes until they are wilted and well coated with the butter. Reduce the heat to medium-low and keep cooking, tossing every now and then to keep them evenly heated, until soft and very, very brown.

As the onions take on more and more color, turn the temperature down to low. The process will take a very long time if you’re doing it right, and varies, depending on the onions you are using (onions have varying degrees of moisture and sugar content, which affects the caramelization). Some will caramelize in only 90 minutes, others will take up to 2 hours. What you are looking for is a very deep mahogany color.

The onions can be refrigerated for up to 10 days, or frozen for up to 6 months. To prepare for the freezer, arrange patty-sized mounds on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze until firm; pack into recloseable freezer bags.

French onion soup

Makes 6 servings

1 batch of caramelized onions

1 cup dry white wine (such as a chardonnay, pinot gris, or dry-style gewurztraminer)

4 cups beef broth

4 cups chicken broth

4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely minced

About 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce

Heaping 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper

Salt to taste

Several thick slices (about 1/2-inch) of French bread or baguette

8 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded

Place the caramelized onions in a large pot over medium heat. When the onions are soft and warm, add the wine, increase the temperature to medium high and cook, stirring several times, until the wine has reduced by half or even a little beyond half.

Stir in the beef and chicken broth, along with the garlic, Worcestershire sauce, pepper and salt to taste. Bring the soup back to a gentle simmer, then reduce to medium, cover the pot, and continue simmering gently for about 20 minutes, so the flavors can develop and meld.

Meanwhile, toast the bread slices on both sides to a golden brown; remove from oven.

When ready to serve, ladle the soup into oven-proof individual-serving crocks or straight-sided oven-proof soup bowls. Arrange one or two croutons on top and sprinkle generously with the shredded cheese. Place the bowls on a baking sheet and broil until the cheese has melted and begun to brown; remove from heat and serve (be careful; the bowls will be very hot!).

Caramelized sweet onions in a slow cooker

Makes about 3 cups

This is a great way to caramelize sweet onions. It’s almost impossible to overcook them; make sure to let the onions cook until they are a deep mahogany color. Because sweet onions are high in water and sugar, they caramelize very well and at the same time produce a lovely onion-flavored broth.

About 3 pounds of sweet onions

6 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces

About 1/4 teaspoon salt

Pinch of ground white pepper

Peel the onions, and trim off the root and stem ends. Halve each onion lengthwise, then slice thinly (about 1/4-inch or thinner). Place the onions and the butter into the insert of a slow cooker. Cover and cook on low for about 10 hours (I actually do this overnight!), or until the onions are a deep golden brown and are very soft.

The onions will produce a lovely amount of liquid, which can be used to make a wonderful caramelized sweet onion soup: In a large pot, heat the caramelized onions and their cooking liquid with 3 cups of beef broth, 1 cup of chicken broth, ½ cup dry white wine, ½ teaspoon ground white pepper and salt to taste. When ready to serve, ladle the hot soup into ovenproof serving bowls. Top each one with a toasted slice of French bread and a generous handful of shredded Gruyere cheese (as described previously in the French onion soup recipe). Broil just until the cheese bubbles and melts and begins to brown. Serve immediately. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Mini panini sandwiches with caramelized onions and cheese

Makes enough little sandwiches for 8 to 10 people, depending on the size of the focaccia.

This is one of my most popular appetizers. The flavors and textures combine for a most wonderful culinary experience.

1 loaf of focaccia bread, halved horizontally

Caramelized onions (see previous recipe)

Slices of Provolone cheese

Layer the bottom half of the bread with a generous amount of caramelized onions. Layer on the cheese over the onions, then place the top half of the bread over the cheese. Cut the loaf into finger-food size wedges or squares. Arrange as many of the sandwiches onto the griddle of your panini maker as it can accommodate and cook until the cheese has melted and the sandwiches are thoroughly heated; remove from the panini maker and repeat until all of the sandwiches are made. As the panini come out of the grill, keep warm in a 150 degree oven. Serve at once.

Alternatives: substitute your favorite semi-soft cheese, such as havarti or mozzarella; Add slender sheets of ham or Prosciutto; add a few leaves of baby arugula.

Lamb curry with caramelized onions

Makes 6 to 8 servings

4 teaspoons ground turmeric

1 tablespoon garam masala

1 tablespoon paprika

2 teaspoons dried mint

2 teaspoons salt

12 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 4-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped

1 jalapeno pepper, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped

1/4 cup water

2 pounds lamb shoulder, cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes

1/4 cup Greek style yogurt

½ cup (1 cube) butter

2 cups caramelized onions

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

2 teaspoons fennel seeds

6 green cardamom pods, crushed

1 stick cinnamon

1 16-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes with juice, crushed by hand

3 cups of water

Cooked white rice

First prepare the spice paste: Combine the turmeric, garam masala, paprika, mint, salt, garlic, ginger and jalapeno with the 1/4 cup of water in a small food processor and puree until smooth. Transfer half of the spice past into a bowl and add the lamb cubes and yogurt. Toss until evenly coated. Cover with plastic wrap and marinate in the refrigerator for 4 to 8 hours.

Heat the butter in a heavy-bottomed skillet. Add the coriander, fennel, cardamom and cinnamon and cook, stirring, until the cinnamon stick unfurls and the spices are fragrant and lightly toasted. Add the caramelized onions and continue cooking until the onions are soft. Add the remaining spice paste and continue cooking until the paste is no longer raw, about 2 minutes. Add the lamb, along with the marinade, and cook, stirring, until the marinade is no longer raw, about another 2 minutes. Add the tomatoes and the 3 cups of water, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium low, and cook, partially covered, stirring occasionally, until the lamb is very tender, about 1-1/2 hours.

Adjust seasoning and serve, along with the rice.

Recipe adapted from “Saveur” magazine

Jan’s mashed potatoes with caramelized onions

Makes 6 servings.

This dish is a heavenly experience at every turn, from the fluffy-buttery potatoes, to the sweet slivers of caramelized onion and rich buttery flavor. And it comes together in a snap if you’ve already got a batch of caramelized onions in the fridge.

2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled (or not; or partially peeled)

About 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 1/2 cups of caramelized onions (see previous recipe)

1/2 cup butter

3/4 cup half &half

Cut the potatoes into 2- to 3-inch sized pieces of fairly uniform size for even cooking. Place them in a large pot with enough water to cover. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes.

While the potatoes are cooking, place the caramelized onions in a medium-sized heavy-bottom pot with the butter over medium-low heat. Let the onions soften and butter melt. Add the half &half to the butter and onion mixture and bring it just to a boil. Turn off the heat and set the mixture aside.

When the potatoes are tender, drain well into a colander. Return the potatoes to their pot and mash with a potato masher. Add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and continue mashing to mix in the salt. Stir in the hot cream, butter and onions and combine. The potatoes may seem too thin at this point, but you’ll notice that they soon thicken. Add additional cream/butter mixture to reach desired consistency. Add additional salt, if desired.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Contact her at

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