How to make Caramelised Onions like a Pro

Caramelised onions with balsamic vinegar

Caramelised onions are a versatile 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. Caramelised onions can be used as a basis for caramelised onion jam or caramelised onion chutney, with the addition of spices, sugar and vinegar.

Many Cape Malay home cooks already know how to make caramelised onions because as soon as we are old enough to stir the pot, we are taught how to how to saute onions and garlic in preparation for a bredie.

Caramelised onion gravy forms the basis of all Cape Malay bredie recipes and makes for the deeply flavorful and multi-layered stews, curries and smoortjies (quick braise) that we learnt to make from our mothers, aunts and grandmothers.

My mother was of the opinion that if recipes with caramelised onions are made correctly, the stews and curries will be a rich deep dark brown with a depth of flavor that is absent from barely blonde sautéed onions and garlic. 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. Literally translated it means Smothered Eggs. The actual usage is Braised eggs; perfectly caramelised onions smothered in soft scrambled eggs, garlic and green chili. We also love fried calf liver and caramelized onions with balsamic vinegar for weeknight meals.

Perfectly caramelised onions are wonderful in these Caramelised onion, fig and brie tart appetisers or week end meals like toasted masala steak sandwiches (more garlic, ginger and a sprinkling of turmeric) or homemade burgers.

Any type of onion can be used to make caramelized onions and I tend to use yellow, brown or red onions. In my experience it is a myth that you can make quick caramelised onions, because all you will get is slightly colored onions with lots of burned ends.

How to make caramelised onions

  1. 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″).
  2. 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.
  3. Use a combination of oil and butter for cooking as butter gives a delicious flavor but the dairy solids tend to burn more easily.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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!)
  7. 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.
Caramelised onions

Before balsamic vinegar and sugar

Caramelised onions with balsamic vinegar and sugar

Caramelized onions with balsamic vinegar

For a more spicy condiment on sandwiches or with stews and curries you may want to try this Spicy Kumquat pickle achar.

Caramelised onions with balsamic vinegar

How to make caramelised onions like a Pro

Razena Schroeder
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.
5 from 9 votes
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 50 minutes
Total Time 1 hour
Course Side Dish
Cuisine Cape Malay
Servings 6
Calories 88 kcal


  • 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.


Serving: 50gCalories: 88kcalCarbohydrates: 11gProtein: 1gFat: 4gSaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 5mgSodium: 87mgPotassium: 121mgFiber: 1gSugar: 6gVitamin A: 80IUVitamin C: 7mgCalcium: 21mgIron: 0.3mg

Disclaimer: Nutritional information for the recipe is an approximation and varies according to the ingredients and products used.

Keyword gluten free, halaal recipes, make-ahead, preservative free
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  • Reply
    March 3, 2018 at 4:37 pm

    I love caramelised onions I could eat them till they come out of my ears haha. This is tasty recipe can’t wait to try it out.

  • Reply
    Ania Travels
    February 24, 2018 at 10:45 pm

    Ahhh man I love caramelized onions but have never really made them, this looks like a great recipe that I’m dying to try.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 25, 2018 at 9:20 am

      I didn’t realise how often I use caramelized onions until I was writing up the post and fine tuning it 😀

  • Reply
    February 23, 2018 at 7:03 pm

    This post explains the whole process very efficiently. I use a lot of caramelized onion in my food preparations, though I’ve figured out my way through it I know I struggled a lot in my initial cooking days. Thanks for sharing the tips from your mom too! 🙂

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 25, 2018 at 9:17 am

      You are most welcome Aditi. My mother’s tips always help me so I am happy to share them 🙂

  • Reply
    February 23, 2018 at 2:50 am

    I do like caramelized onions. I just have never made them and didn’t really know how to make them. Now with this recipe I can try it out and add them to more dishes.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 23, 2018 at 3:56 pm

      I am glad that you will be able to make use of it 🙂

  • Reply
    February 23, 2018 at 12:29 am

    Wow, I had no idea I’ve been doing it all wrong! I’ve never been a big fan of onions but I’m guessing, if I was actually cooking them right that I’d probably like them more. Thanks for the instructions! I’ll be trying this next time a recipe calls for carmelized onions!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 23, 2018 at 3:55 pm

      Don’t be so hard on yourself. With many recipes there is more than one way to get to the end result. However, with caramelized onions there are two things that are mandatory for success. Slow cooking and patience.

  • Reply
    February 23, 2018 at 12:23 am

    Oh my gosh! My husband loves 2 things, onions and garlic! I might have to try this recipe out for him.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 23, 2018 at 3:53 pm

      I can’t imagine onions without garlic either and the smell of the two cooking together drives me a little bit crazy 🙂

  • Reply
    February 22, 2018 at 11:23 pm

    Caramelised onions sound so good and delicious. I would love to try them out, it would be a great add-on for a get-together at my place next weekend.

  • Reply
    Fashion and Style Police
    February 22, 2018 at 10:21 pm

    I have never heard of this recipe before. Definitely love the sound of it. Going to try it.

  • Reply
    Evelyn, Path of Presence
    February 22, 2018 at 10:14 pm

    What a delightful post to hear about Mom <3. Thanks so much for sharing this special recipe. You make it sound easy and that even I can give it a go! I didn't think of using a combo of oil and butter but it makes perfect sense! Thanks so much for the tips. Blessings. xo Evelyn, Path of Presence

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 23, 2018 at 3:51 pm

      My mother passed in 2014 but I remember everything she ever showed or advised me about cooking and baking. My aim is to capture those flavors and lessons in the recipes that I love from my youth because it is the best way to remember and celebrate my mother’s gift. She was an amazing baker and cook, and the tip for the combo of butter and oil came when I was a child. She made the most amazing peri-peri and garlic butter prawns but the only problem was that the butter burnt very quickly. One day she added a tablespoon of oil to the pan first then added the butter and garlic and that solved the problem.

  • Reply
    Esme Sy
    February 22, 2018 at 9:53 pm

    I’ve always know that while they’re perfect for condiments, it does take some time to make them. But seeing how you prepare it here makes it enticing enough to have them for later!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 23, 2018 at 3:46 pm

      My mother used to cook them off in batches and freeze the caramelized onions for later use in curries or stews.

  • Reply
    Elizabeth O
    February 22, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    I adore caramelised onions so I have definitely saved this post to try myself, I learned a few new ideas to try and will be giving them a go!

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 23, 2018 at 3:41 pm

      I am updating a Caramelized onion, fig and brie tart recipe that is an awesome appetizer or savory tart 🙂

  • Reply
    Jocelyn @ Hip Mama's Place
    February 22, 2018 at 4:19 pm

    I love making caramelized onions! It’s really easy and it’s the perfect addition to different recipes. I also love the fact that onions are so tasty and they have a lot of health benefits as well.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 23, 2018 at 3:39 pm

      It is so versatile and I use it in everything from scrambled eggs to sandwiches to appetisers.

  • Reply
    February 22, 2018 at 10:31 am

    This looks so easy to make and they are delicious. I will have to give this a try.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 23, 2018 at 3:38 pm

      I hope you do and let me know if you turned out lovely.

  • Reply
    February 22, 2018 at 7:43 am

    Those look so good! Caramelized onions always are delicious, and I had no idea they were so easy. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 23, 2018 at 3:37 pm

      You are most welcome Jennifer. I suspect the only reason why we think it is hard is because that’s what food magazines and social media leads us to believe. The only hard thing about it is waiting to stir every few minutes. Give it a try 🙂

  • Reply
    February 22, 2018 at 5:18 am

    I love onions and I never heard about caramelize onions. I should give it a go as it doesn’t look that difficult to make and my house has plenty of onion.

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 23, 2018 at 3:34 pm

      From what I have noticed, many people don’t bother to caramelize their onions for food and usually add it raw or sautéed. I prefer it nice and caramelized because the flavor is completely different and so delicious.

  • Reply
    Emily Fata,
    February 22, 2018 at 3:00 am

    I absolutely LOVE caramelized onions, but I can never seem to get them just perfect! I’m going to try your way next time, and hopefully they turn out as amazing as yours. 🙂

    • Reply
      Razena Schroeder
      February 23, 2018 at 3:32 pm

      Generally I hate long winded recipes, but this is one time when your patience will be richly rewarded 🙂

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