Kitchn Love Letters

All I Do Now Is Caramelize Onions for Hours

published Apr 16, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: Brett Regot/Kitchn

As I stare down at a skillet full of thinly sliced onions inching towards caramelization, that singular thought repeats itself in my head: Just keep stirring. While everyone else is naming their sourdough starters and stress-baking loaves of banana bread with bananas beautifully criss-crossed on the top, I find myself slicing onions and putting them in a pan with some butter and olive oil over very low heat again and again. 

I’ve never been much of a baker — something about the preciseness it requires doesn’t agree with me. I’d rather be able to improvise, to be a little creative in the kitchen, so I’ve always leaned towards cooking. I just never thought that something as basic and, quite frankly, boring as caramelizing onions would be such a salve. I don’t have anything against caramelized onions — they’re obviously deeply delicious and, to me, onions or garlic cooking make a house smell like home. (If I was a real estate broker, that’s the fragrance I’d waft through houses to entice buyers, instead of the smell of cookies baking.) But they always felt like a waste of time. If a recipe called for them, I’d inevitably misjudge how long they’d take, and end up jacking up the heat to fry the crap out of them so I could free myself from the stove.  

It all changed when I recently bought some dough from LA-based pizzaiola Lupa Cotta, who’s ingeniously been selling kits so people can make pizza at home. I thought that mushrooms and caramelized onions would be a good topping combo, so I sliced up some regular ol’ yellow onions, turned the heat to the lowest setting, and let them go. For about two hours I stood at the stovetop and stirred. (Although I should note, there’s quite a range for how long this actually takes, and two hours is probably on the long side.)

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: Brett Regot/Kitchn

Right now I’m grateful that caramelizing onions takes so long. The process is a good way to kill time, even when it seems like all we’re doing is killing time. And the onions require attention in the form of pretty regular stirring, so it’s not like I can just leave them on the burner while I catch my internet boyfriend, Andrew Cuomo, whose steady voice during his daily press conferences provide a small sense of security. (Most recipes will tell you to stir “occasionally,” but I find that the onions might start to stick, or over-brown, so I watch them like a hawk.)

When the onions are done, they’re the perfect sweet-savory umami bomb. Pizza was just the beginning of my new favorite kitchen project. To be honest, I’ve always been a leftover-averse eater, but caramelized onions are helping me. They help me punch up last night’s roasted potatoes or what feels like the millionth batch of scrambled eggs I’ve eaten this month.  

The simple process of caramelizing onions is more than the end result, though: It’s a way to shut off my zig-zagging brain from worrying about my family and friends getting sick. It stops me from wondering if I’m washing my hands enough, from feeling like I’m not accomplishing anything valuable with all this “free” time, and also from obsessing over every bit of new information that falls from Dr. Anthony Fauci’s lips. For a couple of hours at least, I can just stand over the stove, slowly stirring as the onions creep toward a golden state of being, and not think about anything at all.

This story is part of our Staying Home series, in which Kitchn editors and contributors share the recipes, tools, and habits that are helping them through the pandemic. As we work to flatten the curve, we’re cooking more, shopping less frequently, and looking for the good and the bright as much as we can. In this very disorienting time, here’s what’s keeping us going.