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Special Sauce: Nik Sharma on the Stories Told by Seasoning

Special Sauce: Nik Sharma on the Stories Told by Seasoning

[Nik Sharma photograph: Courtesy of Nik Sharma. Biscuit photograph: Vicky Wasik] Cookbook author (Seasons: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food), blogger (A Brown Table), and newspaper columnist (A Brown Kitchen) Nik Sharma made the perfect Special Sauce guest. Why? He has a great, dramatic story, and he […]

Romesco Sauce Recipe | Serious Eats

Romesco Sauce Recipe | Serious Eats

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik] Spain’s romesco sauce is rich and hearty, packed with almonds or hazelnuts, fruity roasted tomatoes, garlic, chocolaty and earthy dried peppers, olive oil, and more. It also just happens to be vegan. This sauce lends itself extremely well to interpretation: You can […]

How to Make Romesco Sauce the Catalonian Way

How to Make Romesco Sauce the Catalonian Way


grilled fish, steak, charred spring onions, and more, with romesco sauce

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Imagine you’re an American traveling abroad, and one day you go to a restaurant with American-style hot dogs on the menu. You order one, out of curiosity, and receive a wiener stuffed into a crusty roll, topped with Dijon mustard and quick-pickled slaw. You can clearly map all of the components to the original it’s trying to emulate, and the result might even taste good, but every part of your mouth is screaming, Hoo boy, this is all wrong!

That, I imagine, is what Spaniards might think eating their nutty romesco sauce in the States. In place of oven-roasted tomatoes, raw ones are routinely substituted. Instead of the dark and concentrated flavor of dried peppers, big, sweet roasted fresh red bell peppers find their way into the recipes. Then people get creative, adding raw onion and a spice bazaar’s worth of seasonings. The result looks like romesco sauce, and it kinda tastes like it, but it’s not quite right…

Or maybe it’s not that simple. Even in Spain, romesco comes in many forms, and each cook has their own way of making it. To add to the confusion, “romesco” is often used to describe both the sauce itself and a class of dishes flavored with the sauce, including a pretty spectacular-looking fish stew.*

* Run a search for romesco de peix, the Catalan name, to see what I’m talking about.

Romesco is also often conflated with a very similar sauce called salvitxada (which in turn is also known as salsa de calçots), served as part of the calçotada, a grilled spring-onion feast. There certainly seems to be a lot of leeway around how it can be made.

Let’s take a closer look at the sauce and how to make it. Then you can decide for yourself where to get creative and where to stick to tradition.

What Is Romesco Sauce?

Romesco sauce in a mortar and pestle

Romesco sauce comes from Tarragona, a Catalonian city just south of Barcelona on Spain’s northeastern coast. Its base ingredients usually include nuts—often almonds and/or hazelnuts—tomatoes, dried peppers, garlic, bread, olive oil, and vinegar, all mashed or processed into a paste.

dipping a raw radish in romesco sauce

It’s more versatile than one might imagine. It goes with just about anything—meats, poultry, fish, vegetables, on sandwiches, dolloped into bowls of soups, spread on toasted bread. It can be made thick or thin, chunky or smooth, spicy or mild; it can be rich and oily or fruity and bright.

Stirred into stews and braising liquids, it brings all the flavor you could possibly want. You can put it on pasta, toss it with rice, thin it with oil and vinegar and use it as a dressing for bitter greens; heck, you can probably brush your teeth with it. If the old-school pitchmen of Atlantic City had ever gotten their hands on it, this is the point where they’d say, “But wait, there’s more!” And then they’d reel off another 30 ideas for how to use it.

In short, it’s a sauce you want in your rotation.

The First Fork in the Romesco Road: Tomatoes and Garlic

roasted tomatoes and garlic, for romesco sauce

When making romesco, the first thing you want to consider is how to handle your tomatoes and garlic. Many American recipes just assume you’ll use raw fresh tomatoes and pungent raw garlic. That’s not a safe assumption.

Most Spanish recipes call for roasting the tomatoes and garlic in the oven first to drive off excess liquid, deepen their flavor, and punch up their sweetness. This allows you to pack more tomato flavor into the sauce without turning it into a tomato soup. It also makes it easier to slip the skins off the tomatoes, which is good, since removing the skins improves the texture of the sauce.

The garlic, meanwhile, takes on a much softer, sweeter flavor when roasted. Roasting means you can add more of it without overwhelming the romesco, though a clove or two of raw garlic tossed in for good measure isn’t a bad idea. In fact, that’s the combination I settled on for my recipe: taking advantage of the softening effects of roasting, but also incorporating a little raw garlic for punch.

The Second Fork in the Romesco Road: The Pepper Component

dried ñora peppers, for romesco sauce

Dried ñora peppers.

Most people who know romesco know that it contains pepper, but many mistakenly think that pepper is a roasted red bell pepper. It’s not. The pepper used for romesco is a dried one, either the ñora pepper or, according to some sources, the choricero pepper.

Of course, those Spanish pepper varieties aren’t easy to get here, which is why the bell pepper became a popular substitute. Roasting a bell pepper does add some of the darker notes that the dried peppers offer, and romesco sauces made with bell peppers can taste good. But anyone who knows what the original sauce, made with those dried peppers, tastes like, knows that bell pepper doesn’t really play the part well enough. A better route is to use some kind of dried pepper.

You can buy ñora peppers at Spanish specialty stores, or online at sites like La Tienda. I think it’s worth it. The ñoras add a depth that the red bell pepper simply can’t. They taste molasses-y, but without a strong sweetness, and there’s a bitterness that cuts through everything else. It’s a complex flavor that brings the romesco fully into focus.

If you can’t find ñora peppers, your best option for a substitute is Mexican ancho chili peppers. I did a side-by-side test, and, while the sweeter flavor and mild heat of anchos make them less than an exact match, they come a lot closer than red bell peppers do.

scraping the flesh off a ñora pepper for romesco sauce

Preparing the peppers involves first soaking them in boiling-hot water to rehydrate and soften the flesh, then stemming and seeding them, and finally scraping the tender meat off the papery skin.

The Third Fork in the Romesco Road: Nuts, Nuts, Nuts

Now’s your chance to…go nuts. Almonds and hazelnuts are the most common nuts in a romesco sauce, and you should feel free to experiment with what you like best, whether that’s an all-almond sauce, an all-hazelnut sauce, or some kind of mix. No matter what combination you use, you’ll want to toast the nuts to bring out their flavor, and remove their skins to keep them from making the sauce gritty.

Tools of the Romesco Trade

Step-by-step photos of making romesco sauce in a mortar and pestle

I have a mortar and pestle obsession, and romesco sauce just adds to my love of them. A mortar and pestle is the tool traditionally used to make romesco, and I’d argue it’s what you should use today if you want a romesco with the most character, in both its texture and its flavor. The sauces I’ve made with my mortar and pestle have been sweeter, more complex, and more delicious than those made with a blender or food processor. The texture is also more rustic, which I like as well.

The flavor improvements I noticed from the mortar and pestle are likely due to how the tool works. Unlike the spinning blades of a blender or food processor, which chop the ingredients into smaller and smaller bits, a mortar and pestle crushes them, breaking open the plant cells and releasing more of what’s trapped inside. This generally translates into better flavor.

That said, you don’t have to use a mortar and pestle. This is a forgiving sauce, and it comes out great even with those chippity-choppity appliances of modern convenience.

And that’s what’s so great about romesco—it’s open to interpretation. But to interpret something, you first need to understand the basics, so that your decisions are informed and deliberate. Use fresh tomatoes and roasted red bell peppers if you want, but do it knowing there are other options, not just because that’s what all the Americanized recipes are telling you.

A bowl of romesco sauce

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How to Eat Korean Food (Without Embarrassing Yourself)

How to Eat Korean Food (Without Embarrassing Yourself)

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik, Video: The Serious Eats Team] The best part of learning about new cuisines is trying delicious dishes and ingredients that are entirely new to you. And an important element of any cuisine is the customs and etiquette that govern how meals are […]

Serious Eater Is Officially on Shelves Now!

Serious Eater Is Officially on Shelves Now!

Ed Levine’s new book, Serious Eater, chronicles the birth of Serious Eats. Read More Source link

All About Kecap Manis, Indonesia’s Sweet and Syrupy Soy Sauce

All About Kecap Manis, Indonesia’s Sweet and Syrupy Soy Sauce


A small spoon lifting a spoonful of kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce) from a bowl

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

In my house, kecap manis, or Indonesian sweet soy sauce, is called “Opa sauce,” in honor of my dad, my son’s opa. We call it that because my dad pours the thick, coffee-colored condiment over everything—fried fish (normal), steak (somewhat normal), and spaghetti (not so normal)—much to my mom’s chagrin.

My dad’s tastes in food are simple: He likes Asian food, and he likes it cooked by my mom. Any other dish can be fixed by drowning it in kecap manis. When my dad travels, he carries a miniature bottle of it, just like those airplane-sized Jim Beams and Johnnie Walkers, in his waist pouch, tucked in nice and snug next to his passport and wallet.

While I’m not quite as zealous in my use of kecap manis as my dad is, for me, and for Indonesians all across the globe, it’s an integral element of the food we grew up eating. Its unique flavor—part bittersweet caramel and part savory soy sauce—makes it as versatile as it is alluring: It’s both a necessary ingredient for many of the most famous dishes in Indonesian cuisine, and a wonderful complement to the flavors of any number of other cuisines from all around the world.

What Is Kecap Manis?

Kecap manis (also spelled the Dutch way, ketjap manis) is widely understood to be a local riff on Chinese soy sauce. In fact, the word kecap is derived from the Cantonese word koechiap, or “sauce,” which is also the root word for the more-familiar-to-Americans ketchup.

Other kecap varieties include kecap asin (the Indonesian version of the salty soy sauce you probably have a bottle of in your fridge), kecap hitam (black or dark soy sauce), and kecap ikan (fish sauce). You can read more about soy sauces around the world here.

No one knows for sure when the original kecap—kecap asin, or “salty sauce”—was introduced to Indonesia. But printed materials dating back to the late 1600s describe the sauces saio (“shoyu”) and catchup, both of which refer to soy sauce, being brought to the UK from the East Indies, now Indonesia.

It’s believed that kecap manis was invented sometime in the mid-19th century. When Chinese migrants settled on Java, Indonesia’s largest island, they realized the local Javanese had a sweet tooth. So the Chinese added gula merah, or palm sugar (called gula jawa in Java), to soy sauce, and kecap manis was born.

It’s since become a foundational element of Indonesian cuisine, and a huge industry unto itself: In his book History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in Southeast Asia, soy expert William Shurtleff reports that kecap manis accounted for 90% of the country’s total soy sauce production as of 2010.

The kecap manis that’s available today is about 10 to 15% liquid soy sauce; a mixture of sugar and water makes up the rest, which accounts for its pronounced sweetness and syrupy consistency, and spices are sometimes included as well. The combination of sugar and soy sauce is responsible for kecap manis’s opacity and deep black color, as opposed to soy sauce’s relative translucency and amber coloring. And the use of palm sugar specifically is key, furnishing smoky, savory undertones and caramel-like notes similar to those found in molasses, along with a richer color and unique aroma. Though many other Asian countries produce their own versions of sweet soy sauce made with white sugar, in my (completely unbiased) opinion, these qualities set kecap manis well above the rest.

How Kecap Manis Is Made

Three bottles of kecap manis

Many of the kecap manis producers in Indonesia today are second- and third-generation family businesses. Making it is done in two stages: brewing the soy sauce, followed by adding the sugar and other flavorings.

Soy sauce for kecap manis is produced in much the same way as traditionally made Chinese soy sauce and Japanese shoyu—namely, by using natural fermentation processes. Soybeans are cooked (and, afterwards, sometimes combined with roasted wheat); mixed with a mold culture of Aspergillus oryzae, or koji, called kapang in Indonesian; fermented in brine to build the sauce’s deep-brown color and umami flavor compounds; and pressed to separate the solids from the liquid, leaving raw soy sauce behind.

The soy sauce is then combined with melted palm sugar, and, depending on the producer, herbs and spices, such as lemongrass, galangal, star anise, and/or makrut lime leaves, are steeped in the mixture.

Although over 50 different brands of kecap manis are produced in Indonesia and the Netherlands, only two brands are readily available in the US: Cap Bango and ABC. Conimex, a Dutch brand, is sometimes sold at specialty Indonesian stores. The ABC brand is more common in Asian markets, but I always pick Cap Bango, if available, for its thicker consistency and sweeter, more full-bodied flavor.

How to Use Kecap Manis

Nasi goreng on plate, topped with a fried egg

As we’ve already established, kecap manis is an essential component of some of Indonesia’s most famous dishes. More sweet than salty, it’s typically used alongside regular soy sauce, fish sauce, and/or salt for seasoning in traditional Indonesian cooking. Many Indonesian families—diaspora included—keep two bottles on hand at all times, one in their kitchen for use as a seasoning during cooking, and one on the table to serve as an all-purpose condiment.

The inclusion of kecap manis is one of several key features that distinguish nasi goreng, or Indonesian fried rice, from its Chinese-style counterpart. Beyond simply satisfying my Javanese sweet tooth, kecap manis balances out the saltiness of the many savory ingredients that go into the dish—which include regular soy sauce or fish sauce, but also shrimp paste (terasi), chili paste and/or sliced chilies, chicken, shrimp, and, if I’m cooking, often the Chinese sausage called lapcheong.

Similarly, babi kecap, an Indonesian-Chinese version of hong shao rou, or red-cooked pork, and one of my favorite childhood comfort foods, is defined by the use of kecap manis. While hong shao rou is usually made with sugar, light and dark soy sauces, Chinese cooking wine, and spices like star anise and cinnamon, my mom’s babi kecap consists of braised pork belly flavored simply with kecap manis, soy sauce and/or salt, and white pepper, then served over white rice and jazzed up with fried shallots on top. (All of these are simple tweaks you could make to our recipe for Shanghainese Sticky Red-Cooked Pork Belly.)

The peanut sauce accompanying gado-gado—a salad of sorts, made up of fresh and blanched vegetables, including long beans, cabbage, bean sprouts, and more, mixed with elements such as fried tofu and hard-boiled eggs—has kecap manis mixed into it, for a salty-sweet flavor profile. My mom’s ever-popular chicken sate (satay) owes its deliciousness to a mixture of kecap manis, crushed peanuts, chopped garlic and shallots, and the juice and leaves of makrut limes, which she uses as both a marinade and a glaze. The sugar in the kecap manis helps to give the sate a pretty, burnished sheen through repeated bastings as the meat is charred over a charcoal flame.

Kecap manis is also added to soto ayam (chicken turmeric soup), in much the same way hoisin sauce is swirled into Vietnamese pho, and I like to float chopped bird chilies and shallots in a dish of kecap manis to serve as a dipping sauce for fried fish. And Indonesians everywhere will often simply drizzle it over a fried egg and rice.

But you don’t have to restrict your use of kecap manis to Asian dishes. I like to marinate steak with a mix of soy sauce, kecap manis, and black pepper, the sweetness of the kecap manis eliminating the need for brown sugar or honey to intensify the meaty flavor of the beef. As with sate, the sugar content also promotes browning, giving the steak a lovely burnished crust.

For the same reason, I’ll use it to marinate beef and pork for stewing, patting the meat dry before browning it; if you like your stews and braises tinged with sweetness, you can also add a glug of kecap manis to the stew itself. (I usually pour it in after I’ve added tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce to the base of a beef stew recipe.) Sometimes I’ll simmer together kecap manis, a touch of sherry, and butter for a sauce to serve alongside steaks or roasts.

Whole sides of salmon or arctic char—preferably skin-on—can be salt-and-peppered, grilled, and glazed with a mixture of sweet (kecap manis), tart (lime or lemon juice), and spicy (cayenne or hot sauce) at the tail end of cooking. Or, skip the glaze and simply squeeze lime halves over the cooked fish, then serve with a mixture of kecap manis, garlic, cilantro, and more lime juice. The sweetness of kecap manis and the brightness of citrus play nicely together, producing a balanced flavor profile that’s not too cloying.

If you want to start building an appreciation for kecap manis, the simplicity of nasi goreng makes a great introduction. With that in mind, I’ve attached a basic recipe for the dish here. The use of terasi adds a big hit of umami that sets nasi goreng apart from Chinese-style fried rice, but if terasi proves hard to find, the uniquely sweet-savory profile of kecap manis will still make this version of fried rice exceptional.

This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.



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Nasi Goreng (Indonesian Fried Rice) Recipe

Nasi Goreng (Indonesian Fried Rice) Recipe

[Photograph: Vicky Wasik] Nasi goreng is essentially Indonesia’s take on fried rice. In addition to kecap manis, the country’s ubiquitous sweet soy sauce, terasi (Indonesian shrimp paste) is what sets nasi goreng apart from other fried-rice variations you’ll see in other countries. Terasi is an […]

Canned Tuna Shines in These 12 Recipes

Canned Tuna Shines in These 12 Recipes

[Collage photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt, Vicky Wasik] Tuna occupies an odd spot in the American food consciousness—we tend to think of it as either a humble canned good, bone-dry and flavorless unless it’s cut heavily with mayo, or a luxury seafood to be consumed mainly […]

How to Caramelize Onions | Serious Eats

How to Caramelize Onions | Serious Eats


A time lapse of onions caramelizing in the pan, from raw to darkly caramelized

[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

Here’s the trick to caramelizing onions: there is no trick. At least, I have yet to find a method that promises significantly faster results and still delivers a properly caramelized onion. Not baking soda, not a pressure cooker, and certainly not dumping a bunch of extra sugar on top. You have some latitude with the heat, using a higher flame to move things along more quickly, but it’s risky.

The idea of quick caramelized onions is an appealing one. It’s even an approach we’ve toyed with on Serious Eats in the past. But after further testing (and taking reader feedback to heart), I simply can’t recommend a single alternative to the real deal.

Caramelized onions are more than just a delicious allium preparation. They’re a message to our get-rich-quick, dinner-in-10, six-pack-while-you-sleep society. They’re telling us: GTFOH. We need to listen. Recipes that promise caramelized onions in 10, 15, or 25 minutes should be approached with extreme caution. Caramelized onions take time—at least half an hour, often closer to an hour, sometimes longer. There’s no good way to avoid that.

Here’s what you need to know to make them right, and what not to do.

What Are Caramelized Onions?

Caramelized onions are made by very slowly cooking onions so that they become meltingly soft, deeply browned throughout, and wonderfully sweet. The onions are usually sliced, but can also be diced or minced.

Two different browning reactions are at play in the process: caramelization, in which sugars break down into hundreds of new molecules (read Stella’s great piece on the science of caramel for more on that), and the Maillard reaction, in which proteins and sugars transform into an insane number of new flavor and aroma molecules. Together, caramelization and the Maillard reaction turn pungent raw onions into something so mild and sweet, it might well be dessert.

Here’s what caramelized onions are not: They’re not onions that have been sautéed over high heat so that they brown and char unevenly. Caramelized onions need time to gradually and evenly deepen in color, flavor, and sweetness, so that the finished result is consistent throughout, without any bitter notes from burned bits. And even if you do cook them slowly and evenly, caramelized onions shouldn’t be cooked until they’re so dark that an acrid flavor hangs over them. Those are caramelized onions you’ve accidentally burned.

The pictures in this article show caramelized onions at a variety of stages, and I took one batch in the images pretty far for illustrative purposes. But you don’t always have to cook your caramelized onions so dark. There’s often a good argument for stopping at a lighter shade of brown, depending on the dish. My recipe for French onion soup, for example, encourages a lighter degree of caramelization—an approach that’s backed up by the recipes of many famous French chefs.

Does Baking Soda Speed Up Caramelized Onions?

Caramelized onions, made with and without baking soda

The two samples on the left were free of baking soda, while the two sludge piles on the right were cooked with baking soda. (The two top sample were cooked with butter, while the two bottom ones were cooked with oil.)

Short answer, yes. Long answer, yes, but it’s disgusting.

Baking soda makes the onions more alkaline, which speeds up the browning reactions necessary for properly caramelized onions. But it also weakens the pectin that holds the onion’s cells together, turning what should be soft but distinct pieces of browned onion into a nauseating stew of pea-green mush. The flavor is off, too, with a chemical bitterness that’s just plain wrong.

In my testing, I found no amount of baking soda that was acceptable, no matter how little I added. Even the most minimal quantities ruined the batch.

Does Adding Sugar Improve Caramelized Onions?

If caramelization is what you want, it stands to reason that adding sugar might be a good idea. Right? More sugar, more caramel! This is another one of those misguided tricks, though—the onions already have more than enough sugar to get them to the super-sweet phase.

When onions caramelize, one of the main things that happens is the sucrose, or natural sugar hidden within their cells, is transformed into other, simpler forms of sugar, including glucose and fructose. Those sugars taste sweeter than sucrose, which accounts for the increase in sweetness as the onions caramelize.

Adding sugar to the pot merely adds more sucrose to the formula, and will yield more simple sugars as a result. It’s a lot like tossing more logs on a fire; what you’ll end up with is not necessarily a better fire, just a bigger one. Try to enhance the process with extra sugar, and all you’ll end up with are extra-sweet caramelized onions—I think way too sweet. You don’t need more sugar, you just need enough heat and time to let the sugar that’s already there do its thing.

Can I Make Caramelized Onions in the Oven?

Onions caramelized in an oven

Indeed you can! The oven can produce delicious caramelized onions, and it can do so without requiring quite as much attention from the cook. Start the onions on the stovetop until they’ve softened and released some of their liquid, then transfer them to a moderate 375°F (190°C) oven and let them cook in there, stirring occasionally, until they reach your desired results. This can take a very long time, possibly several hours.

The advantage of using the oven is that the onions brown more slowly, freeing you from the more constant stirring of the stovetop method and allowing you more time to take selfies for that perfect “Look at me, caramelized onions are HOT” Instagram post.

The disadvantages are the overall longer time (even if you’re a little less tied to the stove during it), and potentially less even results; I’ve found that onion residue is more likely to scorch on the sides of the pot or pan, for instance, risking slightly burnt flavors. I prefer to use the stovetop method, but if the oven appeals more, go for it.

What About a Pressure Cooker or Instant-Pot?

Instant Pot countertop pressure cooker

A pressure cooker is yet another avenue often used for quick caramelized onions. The science is there: browning reactions happen faster at higher pressure, such as inside a pressure cooker. And if you test it out, you’ll find that the science works. A pressure cooker can indeed speed up caramelized onions.

But there are some significant negatives to using one for caramelized onions. First, a pressure cooker is a black box—once you seal the lid, there’s no way to know what’s happening inside the pot. You have no way to look inside the pot to see how browned the onions are, nor whether anything in there is burning (you also have no way to stir it, though this can be solved by putting the onions inside another vessel, like a Mason jar, to keep them from direct contact with the hot surface of the pot).

An even bigger problem with a pressure cooker, though, is that it traps steam. That is, after all, how it builds up all that pressure. What this means is that once you open your cooker, your caramelized onions—assuming they’ve properly caramelized—are swimming in excess liquid. You then have to cook all that water off. By the time you factor in the setup, pressurization time, cooking time, depressurization time, and water-evaporation time, you haven’t really gained much.

Choosing Your Ingredients and Tools for Caramelized Onions

What’s the Best Cooking Fat for Caramelized Onions?

You can cook the onions in any fat you want—butter, various vegetable and nut oils, lard. Heck, you can use rendered foie gras fat if you want, it’d be freaking delicious. In terms of the more commonly available options, my favorite is butter. Because it contains milk solids, it kicks off the browning process more quickly than vegetable oils do, and it glazes the onions more beautifully. It’s also more flavorful than most neutral oils like vegetable, corn, and canola oil.

What Kind of Onions are Best for Caramelized Onions?

As with the fats, you can use any kind of onion. Red onions, yellow onions, white onions, shallots, and extra-sweet varieties like Vidalia onions are all great. I’ve found that each yields slightly different results, some sweeter, some more bitter. Often, I’ve gotten the best results by using a mixture of different onion varieties, though this is by no means a requirement.

In my past tests, I’ve recorded the following observations, in case they satisfy your curiosity:

  • Sweet onion: mellow and sweet, with a brightness right at the end.
  • Red onion: deeper flavor, with a slightly bitter edge and less sweetness.
  • Yellow onion: lots of bright flavor, very mild bitterness, and a sweetness backing it up.
  • Shallot: really good balance of sweetness, with both bright flavors and deep, rich ones, and just a hint of bitterness.

What’s the Best Pot or Pan for Caramelized Onions?

In my experience, cast iron and stainless steel pans produce the best caramelized onions. Nonstick pans and enameled cast iron work less well, slowing down the caramelization process unnecessarily.

The size of the pot or pan (and even whether it’s a pot or pan) will depend on the size of your batch. The larger the batch, the larger the cooking vessel you’ll want, and, likely, the higher the walls. That said, you generally want to opt for width over height, since the browning of the onions happens on the bottom of the pan, so the more bottom you have, the better. Sauté pans, which tend to be wide and broad but also have high vertical sides to contain the onions, are particularly well-suited to the task.

Caramelized Onions: Step by Step

Step 1: Get the Onions Going

Uncooked sliced onions in a pan

Add the fat of your choice to the cooking vessel, turn the heat to medium-high and add the onions. You don’t need to wait for the fat or pan to heat up before adding the onions—you actually want to ease the onions into the heat and reduce any risk of the too-quick browning that can happen when food is added to a pre-heated pan.

You’re starting out over higher heat because you want to get things going, but keep in mind that as the activity in the pan ramps up, you’ll have to keep turning the heat down to prevent scorching.

Step 2: Cover (Optional, But it Speeds Things Up)

Putting a lid on the pan to speed up caramelized onions

The first phase of the process is softening the onions so that they collapse into a tender mass while releasing a good deal of their liquid. If you cover the pan, you’ll trap steam, which will speed up their softening, heat them more quickly, and help release their liquid more quickly. Lift the lid a few times during this stage to give them a stir and make sure nothing is browning yet.

You don’t have to cover the pan if you don’t want to, it merely shaves some minutes off the total cooking time.

Step 3: Uncover and Stir

As soon as the onions have softened, remove the lid so that the steam can escape; you won’t have good browning in the presence of a lot of water, so it has to have a way to escape the pot.

Step 4: Stir and Scrape

Scraping up the browned bits on the bottom of a pan while caramelizing onions

Continue stirring and scraping the onions every minute or two, keeping an eye for signs of browning on the bottom of the pot. When the browning starts speeding up, it’s best to lower the heat to keep the transformation slow and even. You can, if you want, continue to work over higher heat, but you’ll need to be more attentive, stirring and scraping even more frequently, and being ready with water to deglaze at a moment’s notice (see the next step for more on that).

As the brown glaze (called the fond in French) builds up under the onions, scrape it up with your wooden spoon. You want to keep scraping it up and folding it back into the onions. It’s delicious.

Do this over and over as the onions gradually more brown.

Step 5: Deglaze If/When Necessary

Adding water to the pan of caramelized onions to prevent scorching

There may come a point where you can’t scrape up some of those browned bits, they’re just cooked on too hard (if you’re cooking over higher heat, this will definitely happen). To deal with this, pour a few tablespoons of water into the pan to deglaze it. The liquid will help you dissolve the stubborn fond and allow you to work it back into the mass of onions. The water you add will pretty quickly cook off and the bottom of the pot will start to brown again. Deglaze as often as necessary to prevent the onions from scorching.

Deglazing the pan with water while cooking over higher heat is one of the only ways to speed up caramelized onions without sacrificing too much quality. You can deglaze as much as necessary while keeping the flame higher to brown the onions faster; the key is to add the water every time the onions threaten to burn. It should go without saying that you run the risk of ruining your onions by cooking them over higher heat, so proceed with caution.

When they reach your desired level of caramelization, remove them from heat and season with salt. Good job, you caramelized onions, and you did it the best way—the only way.

Deeply caramelized onions

This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.



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Caramelized Onions Recipe | Serious Eats

Caramelized Onions Recipe | Serious Eats

1. In a large stainless steel saucepan, or in 2 large stainless steel or cast iron skillets, melt butter over medium-high heat until foaming. Add onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 8 minutes. Lower heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until onions […]