Hot Mess: Caramelized Onions

There are many things you can do to make food taste good.  One of the ways is to simply add something to the dish that you know tastes delicious on its own.  I call these little additions, Morgan Freemans. Yes, Morgan Freemans.  Why?  If you have to ask, you clearly have never seen Morgan Freeman in a movie.  Any movie Morgan Freeman is in is immediately one I want to see.  Perhaps it’s his fatherly presence or his deep, butter voice, but regardless, he can make even a bad movie just a little better.

Therefore, I present to you one of my favorite Morgan Freemans: caramelized onions.

Chances are you’ve had them before.  Sweet in flavor, silky in texture, and golden in color, they can be added to salads, pastas, meats, casseroles and pretty much anything else that beg for a little sweetness.  Restaurants love to throw them in dishes because just seeing those words on a menu can light up a person’s eyes faster than a new car for a sixteenth birthday.

Making caramelized onions is very simple but it does require a little patience.  First, cut the onion any way you want as long as the pieces are roughly close in size.  Typically you’ll see caramelized onions served as long strips but it’s just as easy to cut them in to small squares.  Additionally, you’ll want to overestimate the amount of onions you’ll need.  Caramelizing makes them shrink significantly so if you start out with two cups of onion, you may end up with a little less than a cup when they’re caramelized. Whatever you do, don’t chop the onions in a food processor.  This will release too much water and the onions will steam instead of caramelize.

Once you cut up your onions, melt a tablespoon or two of butter in a large skillet on medium heat.  Always use butter and not oil if you want them to caramelize properly. Oil will fry the onions making them crisp up and turn brown too quickly.  Butter will soften them and bring out the sugars.

Add the chopped onions to the melted butter and stir them occasionally.  It’s important to understand the temperature of your own stove.  While I recommend cooking them on medium heat, you may need to adjust the temperature.  Here’s what you’re looking for: after a few minutes the onions should be turning translucent but golden colored.  If they start to char black and remain crisp then your heat is too high.  These onions are better for serving with hot dogs or grilled burgers.  If this happens, add a little extra butter and reduce the heat.  If the onions turn translucent but remain pale, you heat is too low.  If you let this go too long the onions will “sweat,” meaning they release their flavor but not their sugars.  These sweated onions are used mainly for soups.  If this happens, turn up the heat immediately, turn to evaporate any excess liquid that may have been released, then add a bit more butter and continue cooking.

Properly caramelizing onions takes a good 8-10 minutes depending on how much you’re making.  Once they’re done caramelizing they should be golden brown, soft, and very sweet.  Depending on the onion you use, the sweetness will vary.  The large yellow onions, called “sweet onions” at the store are usually your best bet.  But red onions will also work fairly well.  White onions or any other onion that is not labeled as “sweet” may need a little extra help.  Adding a little sugar, less than a teaspoon, to the onions once they’ve started cooking in the butter can ensure that they come out sweet.

Making caramelized onions is easy but it may take a little adjusting to get them where you want them.  But once you have a nice panful you can add them to whatever you want.  They’re perfect additions to otherwise bitter ingredients such as sautéed greens (kale, collards, spinach), salty dishes such as pastas (alfredo, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese), and foods that are bland on their own (potatoes, eggs, bread).

A fast and easy dish to try is bacon and caramelized onion flat bread.  They serve this dish at Carrabba’s Italian restaurant, but it’d be easy to prepare at home with a package of frozen pizza dough and olive oil.  Bacon is another Morgan Freeman so the combination this salty pork with sweet onions is pretty much full-proof.

We’ll probably get to more Morgan Freemans later, but I wanted to start with the caramelized onions.  I have met very few people who don’t like them, and I frankly could eat them by the bowlful.  I mean, if it’s all based on taste, who doesn’t like sweetness?  Who doesn’t like Morgan Freeman?