Caramelizing Onions Takes Time — Why Do Recipe Writers Fib About That?

updated Jun 12, 2023
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

When it comes to the topic of caramelized onions, Slate writer Tom Scocca is disgruntled. Specifically, he is dissatisfied with the downright lying that goes on in recipes about how long it takes to caramelize onions. He points out examples of cookbook authors and writers implying it takes as little as five to 10 minutes to create dark caramelized onions. He’s calling fiddlesticks on this fiction.

So, how long does it really take to caramelize onions for dishes like caramelized onion dip and caramelized onion phyllo tarts, and why do recipe writers pretend otherwise?

Quick Overview

How Long It Takes to Caramelize Onions

Caramelizing onions takes 20 minutes to an hour, depending on the outcome you’re after.

  • Lightly browned, softly cooked onions take 20 minutes or so.
  • Deeply browned and truly caramelized onions can take up to an hour over low heat.

The Best Ways to Caramelize Onions

Our own recipe for caramelized onions calls for 40 to 45 minutes. After testing several other caramelized onion recipes we found another method we liked, but it still takes 40 minutes. And our French onion soup recipe calls for taking up to an hour to caramelize the onions. FYI, yellow onions (especially Spanish onions) are particularly well-suited to caramelization.

A Shortcut for Caramelized Onions

Are there shortcuts? In his post, Scocca reviews a method from Melissa Clark (one we’ve also reviewed). Using Clark’s method, you put the onion in a dry pan without salt and cook it over medium-high heat until it is dark brown and softened, which takes about five minutes. Then you add the oil and a pinch of salt, and cook the onion for five more minutes, until it is completely soft.

Socca concludes grumpily that, “Clark was only off by 180 percent on the cooking time. You can save 12 minutes off caramelizing onions, provided you pin yourself to the stove.”

Why Recipe Writers Understate the Time to Caramelize Onions

I went back and ruffled rather nervously through Kitchn’s archives; were we also guilty of underquoting this caramelized onion time? I think we may skirt the truth a bit; we often say it takes 20 minutes, although this won’t always get you all the way there.

But why do recipe writers so often drastically undersell the real time it takes? Scocca thinks that it is because there is a stopwatch on many recipes; writers feel pressure to create quicker and faster recipes, and caramelized onions don’t fit neatly into a 30-minute fast dinner.

And yet, even though caramelized onions do take a long time to cook, they make up for the time in convenience.

Scocca recommends making a big batch while you’re in the kitchen doing something else, or you can throw a load of onions into the slow cooker. Not fast, but convenient, yes. Caramelized onions spooned into ice cube trays freeze well. Also? They’re worth their weight in gold, for flavor. Just don’t lie about how long they take.