Um so I’ve been sitting on this post, almost completely written, for two weeks, because I can’t come up with a good introduction. So forget it. Hi, I’m Hannah Mae, sometimes I’m going to write things here, let’s hope I don’t fuck up the formatting too bad!
Since we just met, let’s start from the beginning: onions! Onions are the beginning of every savory good thing, and I can’t stand them. Well, that’s not entirely true, but I do hate to bite them – I mean, I hate it, I hate it enough to leave a whole scoop of beautiful purple potato salad nearly untouched at a freaking birthday picnic this weekend just because it was full of raw onions diced too small to pick out. What an asshole, eh? But I like the taste, so when I cook,* I either cut em in big chunks that I can eat around, or I do something to obliterate the texture completely: that is, caramelize them.
Caramelizing onions isn’t just a time-consuming and arm-exhausting way to get rid of that horrid crunchy sweaty texture, of course – it also makes the onions soft and mellow and, indeed, sweet** while maintaining their savory nature and giving them a lovely deep brown color.*** If you’ve ever made Indian food or Egyptian food or Persian food at home and wondered sadly what you forgot to put in, this is probably your answer. Most Euro cuisines think you can caramelize an onion in 15 minutes, but try soupe a l’oignon with these and tell me it’s not much better.
So first off, get yourself some yellow onions – start with three. They’ll cook down to a fraction of their original volume, but more than three is sort of overwhelming at first. (You could do fewer, but you’re standing there anyway – why not? If your dish needs less, just freeze the extra. Future You will be so psyched that you did.) Slice them very thinly – they don’t have to be pretty, but they do have to be all about the same thickness.
Put a pan over high heat – something with a heavy bottom, ideally not black (cast iron works great otherwise, but you can’t see the browned bits on the bottom). When it’s hot, put in a judicious amount of oil or butter or ghee, and your onions. Sprinkle some salt over them, give them one thorough stir (wooden implement, the wider the better), turn the heat down to medium-high, and leave them alone. They’ll get translucent and steamy and soft and start to get a lot smaller without any intervention from you. If you fuss in the kitchen like I do, let yourself turn them over every few minutes, but really you should save your strength for the next step.
Eventually the onions on the bottom and around the edges will start to get a just a little bit golden. Stir so that those onions are no longer on the bottom. Now keep stirring. Now keep stirring. Now keep stirring. You can stop for 30 seconds at a time, but mostly stir, because if you don’t keep them moving, your onions will burn with unmerciful swiftness and you’ll have to throw them away. Seriously, don’t bother trying to do something with burned onions. Throw them straight in the compost. (But make sure they’re really bitter black first. What if they’re just dark brown? You should taste one. Ew.)
At some point in the stirring, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of dark brown crusted on your pan. (If you’re using cast iron, you’ll just have to believe me on this one.) You want to get this off the pan and back onto your onions before it burns, and you can do it two ways: first, use your utensil to scrape some onions across the brown spots and see if the brownness transfers itself to the onions. If this doesn’t work, try pouring in a little water and try it again.
Keep stirring, keep scraping, keep stirring, keep resisting the urge to call it good enough, because your arm will get tired and you will get very bored, but there’s no way out but through, my friend. Keep the faith! You can do it! Eventually your onions will be about a tenth of their original size, and dark brown in color – dark as Baltic amber, dark as an autumn evening and the smell of burning leaves, dark as the thoughts of Rimbaud in 1891 as he was leaving Abyssinia for France knowing somehow that he was never to return – and now you can take them off the heat. Now you are done.
And now it’s 10 pm and you’re so hungry and all you have is a tiny heap of brown onions. Jesus fuck. Make yourself an omelette before you starve to death and while you eat, go read recipes – mujadara, aloo gobhi, dopiaza, pilaf, quiche Alsacienne, imam bayildi – the world is your onion, my friend.
* Now is a good time to mention reason #1 to learn to cook: you can avoid having to eat foods you hate without having to admit your irrational prejudices out loud. I have a list of loathes as long as my arm, but you’d never know it if I’m serving you dinner.
** Do you ever make up dumb alternate words to songs and then have trouble getting rid of them? Like, every time I see the Great Danes who live down the block, the miniature Kim Deal in my head sings “gigantic! gigantic! gigantic! a big big dog!” You know that old labor song, “There Is Power in a Union”? Well, there is sugar in an onion. I’m just saying.
*** The browning is due to a Maillard reaction – a close relative of caramelization – which is a complicated beast involving carbohydrate molecules and amino acids and blah blah something something produces new families of molecules and new aromatic dimensions! Harold McGee told me so (pp 778-779 in the new edition), and I have been wowing guests at cocktail parties ever since! (If your guests are the jaded type who already know all there is to know about Maillard and his reactions, try brushing up on your anthocyanins instead. That’s sure to impress em.)