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All About Cooking Onions

cooked onions

From when to use onions raw to the difference between sauteed and caramelized, we’re all about cooking onions today!

Whether you’re rolling your eyes because of course you know how to cook an onion, or you got here because you Googled “how to cook an onion,” welcome to All About Onions day in my kitchen!

Not everyone likes onions. Not everyone likes onions in all of their cooking stages. I’m one of those. I like cooked onion, but not raw. It’s just too pungent for me, and it tastes like it overpowers whatever you’re pairing it with. I know other people who like raw onion but don’t like the texture of onions when they’re cooked. To each their own.

For most of us, many of the meals we create have onion involved somewhere. The directions for what to do with them can get vague and not everybody knows what the descriptor terms mean. What’s the difference between translucent and softened? How many onions do I have to cut up to have a cup of caramelized onions when I’m done cooking?

Those are the questions we’re going to answer today.

We’re going to talk about 5 stages of cooking onions: raw, translucent, softened, sauteed and caramelized. We’ll see what each stage looks like, how cooking onions to that stage affects the volume in the pan, and when you would use onions cooked to that stage. While I’m using basic yellow onions for our walkthrough today, red onions and white onions follow the same stages.

Stage 1 – Raw Onion

onions raw

Raw onion has a very sharp flavor, lots of bite. It’s also very crunchy. As you can see in the photo above, the onion flesh is very white and you can’t see any light through it.

onions raw pan

The onions have just been placed in the pan in this photo and have not had a chance to start cooking yet; As you can see, they’re covering the entire bottom of the sauté pan. Throughout the cooking process, the onions will decrease in volume as the water inside of them cooks out and evaporates away.

Raw onion is typically used as a topping for sandwiches and burgers or added into salad. They offer a good texture and flavor contrast to the other produce in a salad and help to balance out the richness of a burger or a sandwich with meat or fish.

Stage 2 – Translucent

onions translucent

These onions have been cooked to the “translucent” stage. You can see in the above picture that light can penetrate through these slices, they’re not quite as white looking as they were when they were still raw. Still a good pungency to the onion here and a firm texture, though not crunchy the way they were before we cooked them.

onions pan translucent

In the pan, the onions still look rather white, though a bit softer than they were when we started. There’s also not a lot of shrinkage yet, because the onions haven’t had a chance to give up much of their water content by this point.

Cooking onions until they’re translucent is most often a step in a recipe. Generally you will cook the onions further with other ingredients. It is done sometimes to give the onions a “head start” before adding ingredients, like chopped garlic, that cook more quickly.

Stage 3 – Softened

softened stage

Our onions have cooked for another 3-4 minutes and have now softened. They look a bit more yellow than white, but still no browning. They are soft when you bite them, losing most of the firmness that translucent onions still had. The flavor changes at this stage, more mellow, but not sweet yet.

softened in pan

The onions have definitely lost some volume at this stage and you can see more of the bottom of the pan. The onions also look more yellow, but still no browning.

Softened onions, like translucent onions, are typically a step in a larger recipe. They will be called for when you want to make sure that the onions will cook through all the way in a sauce or casserole, etc.

Stage 4 – Sautéed

Aren’t they beautiful? This makes me so happy.

In order to get to sautéed onions without disrupting our ultimate journey from raw to caramelized, I had to make a detour. Specifically, a re-route to another sauté pan for a spoonful of the onions. Sautéed is not a stop on the way to caramelized. While both lead to tasty and brown cooked onion, the processes are different. Sauté means “to jump” in French. It’s fast, high-heat cooking. As a result, the onions taste cooked and mellow but not sweet, because the sugars don’t have the time to develop here. The color is also not as evenly brown, with darker crispy edges and softer slices too.

Since these were cooked in a separate pan, we can’t compare volume for these. It’s less.

These are the onions I like on a burger. Great flavor, but not a punch in the face. Sautéed onions are great with their partner sautéed mushrooms over a steak. Unless you’re after the crunch, it’s worth the few minutes it takes to cook them instead of piling the onions on raw.

Stage 5 – Caramelized

Finally, after 40-45 minutes, we have reached the pinnacle, caramelized onions. Soft, sweet, almost syrupy in texture. Deep and complex in flavor, with none of the pungency that existed in the original raw onion. The color is amber to toasted brown, and the variation here is owed more to my highly questionable photography than the actual onions.

caramelized onion

The volume has reduced dramatically. From 3 medium-sized onions there is now 1/3 to 1/2 cup of caramelized onion. When a recipe calls for caramelizing onions, don’t be afraid of the number of onions you’re starting with, you will lose roughly 80-90% of the volume in the process.

And don’t cheat! No adding sugar. Don’t be lazy, it’s not worth it. The sugars in the onion will caramelize in their own time and don’t need the help. Adding sugar makes the process go a bit faster, and that’s not a positive in the flavor department. Flavor development happens through long cooking over low heat. Added sugar will start caramelizing faster, so the onions get brown and pretty, but the flavor doesn’t have time to develop as fully. It takes less time, sure, but you short-change your end results.

Using Caramelized Onions

If you want to make caramelizing onions faster and easier, do it in bulk. It takes longer, but you’re only doing it once. Pick a weekend afternoon and let them cook for a few hours on very low heat, stirring every once in a while. I slice up and cook down about 10 lbs of onions once or twice a year and then freeze them in mason jars. All I have to do is just scoop some out when I need them and keep the recipe moving.

I use caramelized onions in French onion soup, sauces, gravies, on burgers and sandwiches, in casseroles…

There’s a reason I make them in bulk!

onions on a plate

We made it! From crunchy and pungent raw onions to caramelized, velvety sweetness, and all the stops in between. I hope you enjoyed the tour of allium goodness!

I love to see what you’re cooking, so tag @jessiescozykitchen or use the hashtag #jessiescozykitchen on Instagram and Facebook!

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