Nothing transforms certain dishes quite like caramelized onions, and few things are as easy to make. Whether you just need something to toss with pasta for an easy meal or a quick topping for a flatbread pizza appetizer, caramelized onions can quickly elevate a mundane dish into something new, refined, and totally craveable. However you use them, they’re a great ingredient to have on hand for both leisurely weekend cooking and on harried weeknights when your pantry is low on ingredients and you are low on time.
To make them, simply cut the root and stem ends from a few onions, remove the papery skin, and then cut the onions in half lengthwise. Thinly slice the onions so that you have thin half-moon slices, then place them in a large skillet (NOT a nonstick skillet, as you want the fond that builds up on the bottom of the pan and can’t get that on a nonstick finish) with a small pat of butter or a little bit of olive oil. Give it a couple healthy pinches of salt, crank up the heat to high, and then just as the onions start gently sizzling, turn the heat down to medium low or to whatever temperature setting on your stove will allow the onions to first turn translucent, then golden, then bronze, then copper- but never quickly browning. This will take time, sometimes up to 90 minutes, depending on the onion you use, but don’t rush it. Rush it, and you have sauteed onions, which are a completely different animal than caramelized onions. Slow and steady makes the starches in the onion turn to sugar, and as the onions cook, you’ll start to notice a dark-ish, sticky buildup of these sugars on the pan called fond. For the majority of cooking, you should be able to easily scrape this up and stir it into the onions, which you should do often, because it is delicious. Once it becomes hard to scrape the fond from the pan, you can drizzle a tiny bit of water or balsamic vinegar into the pan and then stir to deglaze it, releasing the fond into the onions. At this point, the onions are probably close to done. Give them a taste- if they are sweet and rich, begging to be eaten from a spoon, you know they are ready; if not, continue cooking until they reach this point.
It is helpful to do this in larger batches (four softball sized onions at a time) since it takes no more effort to caramelize four onions than it does to do one and they store beautifully in the freezer. It’s a good idea to freeze them in small portions so that you can use them for last-minute meals or additions to meals. Common uses for them are on pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, in pasta, in rice/grain bowls, or in french onion dips, but feel free to get creative with them and try them wherever you’d like.