Onions — techniques & applications

Onions – do you love or hate them? Onions are such a ubiquitous ingredient in so much of our savory cooking. When a recipe calls for chopping or slicing them, do you stop to think how you should do this or do you just grab your onion and knife and go to it? In this Cooking Tip, I want to explain why how you do this simple task can make a difference in the final dish.

The first question is whether you want your onions to just melt into your dish such as you would want in a soup or sauce. Or, do you want some texture remaining as you would for French Onion soup or caramelized onions?

If you want the onions to soften, you should cut them crosswise into small pieces. Here is a link to a video on how to do this. (One caveat: I think making the horizontal slices first followed by the vertical is easier.) If you want texture, you should slice pole to pole. This video also demonstrates that.

How you cut up your onion will also change the resulting taste. When you cut crosswise, you cut through more onion cells and this leads to a stronger onion aroma/flavor. When cutting pole to pole, fewer cells are ruptured, leading to a softer/sweeter flavor.

If you say how can an onion taste sweet, you have obviously never tried caramelizing your onions. If you had, you would admit that they can taste almost as sweet as candy – no kidding! To do that, slice your onions thinly pole to pole. Start heating a skillet with some butter and/or oil. Toss in your onions, add a sprinkle of salt (some prefer to add the salt when the cooking is finished) and stir. Cook until the onions start to turn brown; then turn down the heat to low and cook the onions until soft, brown and sweet. This will take anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes.

If they start to brown too quickly, add a splash of water and scrape up the brown bits. Turn down the heat and continue to cook. I like to cook them with a lid on the pan but just be sure to watch so they don’t burn. Some methods will have you start with more water and let it evaporate. Others will add a small amount of sugar to kickstart the caramelizing process. Some even add a bit of baking soda. I prefer the old-fashioned, longer process described in the prior paragraph but, do some experimenting to find your favorite method.

Toss these yummy caramelized onions on a pizza or your favorite grilled cheese sandwich.
You won’t regret it!