Certain smells take you back so strongly, you have to look twice to make sure you are still in the present. Apples ripening on the trees in autumn, fryolator oil and salt air, subway grates and roasted chestnuts each make certain moments live again for me. And then there is the smell of caramelizing onions.
My mother and grandmother both loved to cook chopped onions in oil until the onions were deep brown and fragrant. My mother would cook calf’s liver until it was pink and still juicy and chop it with the onions and a hard-boiled egg in a wooden bowl, using a spring-loaded three-blade chopper. She would sprinkle roast beef with finely chopped onions which would brown in the beef fat, adding crunch and taste to the meat. She made gravy, incorporating the brown bits. The smell of frying onions is the smell of my childhood, coming in from cold November streets to a warm house that smelled of comfort.
Which is not to say that caramelized onions are a thing of the past. I may not eat chopped beef liver anymore, but I still fry onions. They add big flavor while requiring little more than time, some stirring and some attention.
The chemistry of browning is complex. Food chemists talk about the Maillard reaction: using heat to combine sugars and carbohydrates with the nitrogen in amino acids, resulting in 200-odd compounds, each contributing to the final taste. You might as well talk about love as the reaction of various parts of our brains to pheromes. The explanation may be accurate, but it misses the point.
Whether you are using a frying pan and oil or butter, a broiler, an oven or an outdoor grill, browning improves the taste of pretty much everything. Onions, in particular, benefit from browning. Raw, they are sharp and piquant. Sautￇed until they are translucent, the flavor softens, adding a familiar base to dozens of dishes. But browned, they take center stage.
I make a minestrone using caramelized onions as a base when I am not using meat. The rich roasted onions add a depth of flavor to the finished soup. An Indian cookbook taught me the trick of sautￇing rings of onions until they are deep brown and tossing them onto cooked dal (lentils) just before you bring them to the table. Try it. You’ll be amazed at the difference. And these days, with traditional terms being tossed around freely, onion marmalade, which is nothing more than cooked onions with some seasonings, is a condiment and a stuffing for everything from pork tenderloin to chicken.
The process is simple. Slice or chop your onions, put them in a frying pan with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, vegetable oil, margarine, or oil and butter, and cook over medium heat. Pure butter burns easily, but you can use it if you are careful. Stir the onions enough to keep the pieces from sticking to the pan.
Plan on spending 10 to 20 minutes; don’t try to hurry the process. As the onions color, make sure to keep moving them so that all the pieces have a chance to brown. Add a little oil if the pan looks dry.
Pay more attention as the color darkens. Properly browned onions are deep brown with few white spots and no black spots. Black spots mean you’ve burned them and you need to toss the batch and start again.
Speaking of which, if you are worried about burning onions, a good experiment is to set out to burn them intentionally. Just keep cooking them until they burn, and keep watching the pan. You’ll notice the moment when deep brown becomes char. At this point, toss the results on your compost pile, clean the pan and do it again for real. Like anything we’re scared of, going through with it once removes its hold on our imagination.
How does one cut onions for browning? The result depends on the final use. If you are looking for small pieces, chop the onion. If the onions will be a distinct component of the dish, slice them lengthwise or in rings. To peel an onion, slice off the growing tip, stand it up and slice the onion in half through the root end. You can easily peel the skin off. The root end will hold the pieces together while you cut them. If you imagine each half as a clock face, cut wedges at each hour mark. Slice off the root end and you have lengthwise strips. Cut crosswise and you can chop the onion in pieces. The thinner the wedges, the finer the mince or the strips. Rings you can probably figure out on your own.
Browning reduces the amount of onion dramatically. For one dish, start with a large Spanish onion or two large yellow onions in a 12-frying pan. Pile them up – they’ll shrink down. If you make a lot, they’ll keep in the refrigerator and you can warm them up and add them to sandwiches. How long they’ll keep is still a mystery. They never hang around more than a couple of days in my house.
Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, October 20, 2006