Obedient Ingredients

A place to put cooking ideas to the test.

Onions: Caramelized

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We know that the onions have different tastes. I wrote about it in a post about guacamole.

Onions are incredibly versitile. Raw, and you get one flavor. But take that same onion and you can get different tastes/textures depending on how you heat it: letting it rest in stew, sweating, grilling and then caramelizing. Caramelizing onions is one of my favorite ways of preparing the onion. I’ve done it many times. But then I thought…

What are the differences when caramelizing different onions?

For today’s experiment, I will caramelize a red, a yellow and a white onion.

Background

Ruhlman’s Twenty, an essential read, says that “the onion is among the most powerful flavoring devices in the kitchen and works in numerous ways.” He goes on to say that “not having an onion in the kitchen is like working with a missing limb.” Noted. Always buy onions to avoid amputation (or something like that).

Red, yellow and white onions are considered “basic” onions and they all work the same way: look for firm bulbs, tight dry skin, and they can have a harsh taste to them raw.

What is caramelizing? That is when we slowly, very slowly, cook onions over a medium-low heat to cook out the water. They will then brown, but magically, the onions become much sweeter. As Ruhlman says, “the key to caramelization is time.” If the heat is too high, the onions may burn. The slices of the onion should be thin.

Simply add oil (I use olive, but canola is fine) and some say you can just use butter, but I use a mixture of butter and oil.

Caramelized onions are great on burgers, in French Onion Soup, or alone as a side dish.

But which type of onion should I use, Obedient Ingredients?! Red, yellow or white?!

Stop yelling at me. Let’s find out now.

Experiment:

I took one large red onion, yellow onion and white onion. I cut them up in thin slices (not minced). I added the same amount of butter and olive oil to my pans. I turned the heat to medium-low and let the pans get hot. When the butter was sufficiently melted, I added the onions to separate pans, sprinkled some Pink sea salt on them, and let them get to work.

I would stir the onions every now and then to make sure they were cooking evenly. I cooked them for 45 minutes. Each pan heated the onions for the same amount of time. I also made sure all pans were at the same temperature (I would check the sizzling of each). In my humble kitchen, I only had one of each kind of pan. Does the type of pan affect the final product? I think it does, but my non-profit salary does not allow me to have a true kitchen lab.

Pan manufacturers, I would love some pans for free. I’ll advertise for you! Thanks.

When the onions cooled, I served a small batch of each kind of onion to all of my testers at my dinner party. Obviously this wasn’t blind (they can tell which were which from the color) but I told them to be open to how each taste. Each tester had his or her own plate, a glass of water to cleanse, and a piece of paper to write their reactions.

Results:

Below are the impressions my taste testers had on each of the onions.:

Yellow Red White
Adam Very sweet, flavorful, holds flavor of butter Most pungent Crunchier, yet more watery. Why do white onions even exist? (editor’s note: that means he doesn’t like)
Allison Strong flavor, pungent, crunchier, like butter Very sweet/crunchy. My choice on a burger Crunchier, weaker flavor
Meg Sweet, more caramelized, second favorite Best texture, caramelized yet still crunchy, distinct sweet yet oniony flavor. First favorite Subtle taste, appear less cooked, more crispy. Least favorite
Caro Sweet, more texture than flavor. Mild flavor. Stronger, sweeter, don’t eat this before a date, Bit of after taste. Pungent. Middle of the road, not overpowering, onion flavor. Favorite.
The girlfriend Most sweet, a little burnt. Awesome Crunchiest, best look, not mushy, but almost same sweetness as yellow. Retained onion flavor Different, sweet, crunchier, least burst of taste.
Me Sweeter, the taste “pops”, almost too sweet, most pleasant texture Subtle sweetness, nice after taste, almost like honey, OK texture “Meh”, slightly earthy, slight bitterness, no “pop”, unpleasant aftertaste

Conclusions:

The opinions were not clear cut.

Sweetness was an obvious attribute of these onions (duh, they are caramelized). For the sweetest, 4 out of 6 say that yellow was the sweetest. The sweetness of the red, in comparison to the yellow, seems to range anywhere from “the same” to “more subtle”. The white onion had the least amount of sweetness; most of us did not even mention sweetness as a reaction.

The opinions of flavor were mixed. It seemed that yellow had a great deal of taste, but perhaps there was too much flavor for people’s liking. There seemed to be a leaning toward the more “subtle” flavor of the red onion. Yet some thought that the red onions were too strong (“Don’t eat the red onion before a date”). The white clearly had the least amount of flavor.

Texture is important, and this is where the different pans could have affected the crunchiness of each dish (poor science! Forgive me). This is also where opinions can differ: do you prefer a completely caramelized onion that is soft, slightly mushy, completely glazed, or onions that are soft yet have mixes of crunch here and there, some slight burnt texture? It seemed that the white onion had more crunch, yet that was not always the case. I preferred the mixed texture of the yellow (glazed with some crunch), yet others enjoyed the crunch of the red.

So which onion is best for caramelizing? From this taste test, it seems that white onions were the least preferable, but more than that, each of us said that we would never caramelize white onions, ever.

The differing degrees of sweetness, flavor and texture from the red and yellow, along with our mixed preferences, make the red and yellow onions great choices for caramelizing. If you want something sweeter, I would say go for the yellow. If you want flavor, go for the red. 

Future tests:

A bigger sample of taste testers is needed. Also, I would love to perform this test blind, meaning the taste testers are actually blindfolded. Having the same exact pans would also be helpful for more valid results.

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One thought on “Onions: Caramelized

  1. Pingback: Butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, caramelized onion, goat cheese pizza « Obedient Ingredients

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