Caramelised onions are a versatile condiment or addition to savory dishes and add a deep flavour and subtle sweetness. It is easy to make although it requires time and patience for the best result.
Many Cape Malay home cooks already know how to make caramelised onions like a Pro, if they learnt how to make deeply flavorful and multi-layered stews, curries and smoortjies from their mothers, aunts and grandmothers. If you did not have that opportunity then this is for you.
My mother always insisted that onions used in stews and curries be a deep dark brown as they gave the finished dish a richer color and depth of flavor that was absent from barely blonde sautéed onions. The caramelisation of the sugars in the onions add a dimension that you can’t really replicate with any other ingredient.
My first memory of tasting caramelised onions were my mother’s Gesmoorde Eiers. Loosely translated it means Smothered Eggs. What it really is, is perfectly caramelised onions smothered in scrambled eggs, garlic and green chili.
Any type of onion can be used to make caramelized onions and I tend to use yellow, brown or red onions.
Top tips for successful caramelised onions
- Slice the onions evenly and not too thin or too thick, to ensure even cooking and prevent them burning easily. For best results they should be sliced between 3mm to 5mm (1/8″ -1/5″).
- Use the right pan to cook caramelised onions, preferably a large one with high sides to prevent the onion slices flipping onto the cook top. A small pan or wok will result in steaming and a potentially mushy end result. For 500 grams onions the best pan would be 30cm (12″) in diameter.
- Use a combination of oil and butter for cooking as butter gives a delicious flavor but the dairy solids tend to burn more easily.
- Slow cooking on low or medium-low heat will allow the sugars to slowly caramelize and is preferable to shorter cooking at high heat. It takes much longer but gives a more uniform result with deeper flavor and little or no burning or scorching.
- Regular stirring of the onions prevents burning and ensures even cooking. For low heat check and stir every 5-10 mins and more frequently for medium-low heat.
- Deglaze the pan and incorporate the sticky film on the bottom or any brown bits. Water, stock or vinegar can be used for this. If you use a non-stick pan there may not be much of the sticky stuff (sad but true and the only time a stainless steel or cast iron pan rocks!)
- Cook the onions until they are dark brown for a rich caramelised onion flavor. Golden blonde and translucent onions will be cooked but not fully caramelized.
Perfectly caramelised onions are wonderful in these Caramelised onion, fig and brie tart appetisers or small tarts. They can also be used in breakfast dishes like Gesmoorde Eiers (leave out the sugar and vinegar); week night meals like Liver and Onions (add more sugar and vinegar); or week end blow out feasts like Toasted Masala Steak sandwiches (more garlic, ginger and a sprinkling of turmeric).
For a more spicy condiment you may want to try this Spicy Kumquat pickle achar.
How to make caramelised onions like a Pro
- 500 grams onion 2 large onions, peeled
- 15 ml extra virgin olive oil approximately 1 tablespoon
- 15 ml butter approximately 1 tablespoon
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 ml salt approximately 1/4 teaspoon
- 2.5 ml thyme leaves approximately 1/2 teaspoon
- 15 ml granulated sugar approximately 1 tablespoon
- 30 ml balsamic vinegar approximately 2 tablespoon
- 30 ml water optional
Cut both onions in half length wise and remove the roots.
Place the first onion half flat on the cutting board and cut even slices from the stem end to the root end, about 5mm wide. Repeat this with the other three onion halves.
Heat the extra virgin olive oil and butter in a high sided pan and add the onion slices when it starts to sizzle.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook gently for 20-25 mins. Check and stir every few 3-5 minutes to ensure that it does not catch and burn.
At this point add the crushed garlic, salt and thyme leaves and cook another 5 mins if you wish to use it in soups and quiche. It will be a deep golden blonde color.
For a deeper flavored and softer caramelised onion, cook for another 15-20 minutes then add the sugar and balsamic vinegar.
Keep cooking the caramelised onions for another 5 minutes on low heat until the sugar has dissolved and the balsamic vinegar has absorbed, then remove from the heat.
If the onions start sticking then add up to 30 ml water to deglaze the chewy bits and cook off the water.
Use a wide bottomed high sided pan to ensure that the onions do not steam and that there is enough space to move them around without ending up on the stove top.
You can leave out the sugar and balsamic vinegar if you want plain caramelized onions.
The thyme leave can be omitted or replaced with other herbs like rosemary or sage, as long as it compliments the final dish flavor profile.
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