How to Fry Onions: Basic Cooking Techniques
As with many things in life, good cooking involves knowing what you want to achieve, and knowing how to achieve it. Simplistic advice, no doubt, but inexperienced, nervous and beginner cooks often complain that something didn’t turn out the way they expected. A good example is the frying of onions, a basic cooking technique at the start of so many dishes.
So firstly, what are we trying to achieve? There are, I think, two extremes, and then the middle ground, the last of which being what we want to achieve most of the time.
The first extreme is the half-burned fried onion, where the edges have gone beyond golden to a crispy black, while the rest of the onion is half-cooked at best. I would dismiss this out of hand, except that there are some people who do like this combination of part-raw and bitter-burned flavour. Not to my taste at all, and rather you than me, but if this is what you want to achieve, slice your onions fairly coarsely, and fry them quickly at a fairly high temperature, until the edges have burned. Job done.
The second extreme is Caramelized Onions, where you cook down pounds of sliced onions over the slowest possible heat for an hour or two until all that is left is a light-golden, very sweet jam. This can also be the base for Onion Marmalade.
If those are the extremes then the middle ground is what I find most useful in my kitchen, and the way I will most often cook them. Master this (and it’s pretty easy) and you are well on the way to understanding some of the most important principles of good cooking.
So, what do I want to achieve? Certainly no burned or blackened edges: I do not like much bitterness. On the other hand, I don’t want to spend hours caramelising a vast batch of onions when I just need a little to start a stew, casserole, curry, sauce, omelette or whatever. What I want is a few spoonfuls of sweet, tangy onions that have given up some of their moisture and developed some golden-brown colouring.
Here’s how to do it.
Fried Onions: ingredients
As many onions as you need, (they will reduce to about a half or less of their volume when cooked) halved, peeled and sliced or diced as required
A little olive oil
A little butter (optional, for a richer flavour with better browning)
A little salt
Fried Onions: method
Put a heavy-based pan or pot onto a medium to high heat, wait until the pan has heated, put in a splash of oil (and the butter, if using: work quickly, let the butter melt and froth, but not brown or burn). Immediately tip in the onions, and stir until well coated with oil. Reduce the heat, add a good pinch of salt (this helps the onions release their moisture as well as adding savouriness) and stir again.
Now comes the important bit: it’s all about managing the heat, as in so many cooking techniques. If the onions are just sitting quietly at the bottom of the pan doing nothing, then turn the heat up a little. If the edges are beginning to change colour rather rapidly, turn the heat down. Take your time. The onions will first go translucent, then more opaque and they will also begin to take on the golden colour we are waiting for. Be patient. Stir frequently, and continue to juggle the heat as required. And that’s it. When they’re ready, they’re ready.
It may seem bizarre, or even unnecessary to write a whole essay on the frying of onions, where many recipes (including some of mine) may just say “brown the onions…” but this Zen-like concentration on one small aspect of the meal will do wonders for your cooking. If your onions have never quite turned out the way you want in the past, they will from now on if you follow the technique laid out above. And if you apply the idea of “getting the small things right” to all your cooking, your meals will improve immeasurably.