Why Do Recipe Writers Lie About How Long It Takes To Caramelize Onions?

Obsessions, Manias, Complaints
May 2 2012 7:12 AM

Layers of Deceit

Why do recipe writers lie and lie and lie about how long it takes to caramelize onions?

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But the onion lies had not yet been fully refuted. Melissa Clark, the author of the Times' scone recipe, claimed in a Diner's Journal post that she relies on "a somewhat unusual technique," one that "takes less than half the time of the traditional slow-cooked method of caramelization and makes for sweeter, more intensely flavored onions with a complex, chewy texture." The secret, she writes, is starting the onions in a dry pan, and adding the oil later. 

Note that half the time of the traditional method is still 20 minutes, not 10. Nevertheless, I decided to follow her instructions to the letter. I used a red onion, as Clark specified, "halved through the root and thinly sliced crosswise." I started slicing it paper-thin. Not good enough? I got out the knife sharpener and touched up the edge on the cleaver. Now it was tissue-paper thin. I heated the pan—dry—over a generously medium-high flame, then added the onions. 

After five minutes—when according to Brown, it would "begin to turn dark brown and somewhat soft"—the onion was resolutely white and pink, and only slightly translucent. I added the oil: one tablespoon, extra-virgin. The white parts turned the color of extra-virgin olive oil. 

At 10 minutes, when it was supposed to be done, the onion was translucent and soft, with only a tinge of gold. Soon after, one golden speck appeared. By 15 minutes, the onion was even softer and more golden. At 20 minutes, there were deep brown patches, and I was afraid they would scorch while I set down my spatula to take notes. At 24 minutes, the risk of scorching forced me to lower the heat to medium. By 25 minutes, they were pretty well caramelized, and at 28 minutes they were as done as I'd want.

So 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. 

That is the deeper problem with all the deceit around the question of caramelized onions. The premise is wrong. The faster you try to do it, the more you waste your time. This isn't some kitchen koan. It's a practical fact. The 10-minute-cum-28-minute caramelized onion is all labor and anxiety. Give yourself 45 or 50 minutes to brown onions, working slowly on a moderate flame, and it's an untaxing background activity. You can chop other vegetables, wash some pots, duck out to have a look at the ballgame on TV in the next room. Keep half an eye on the pan. It will only need close tending toward the end.

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Recipe writers approach kitchen time with a stopwatch. The Times' scone recipe, as written, claimed to take 45 minutes. Once you subtract out the (fictitiously shortened) onion-cooking time, the one-minute caraway-seed-toasting time, the 15-to-17 minute baking time, and the 10-minute cooling time, that leaves the cook seven to nine minutes in the middle to mix the dough (including grating frozen butter into it), shape it, cut it into scones, and lay the scones out on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Oh, and somewhere in there, the onions needed to "cool completely." Isn't home baking soothing? 

In truth, the best time to caramelize onions is yesterday. Often enough, you need to have them ready before you can start on the rest of the dish. Thus the recipe-writers' impulse to deceive. Browning onions is slow work, and it comes first. So get a pan going after dinner, and they'll be ready when you need them. Or throw the onions in a crock pot and go to bed. In recipe time, that's hours and hours. In your time, the time that matters, it's less than five minutes.

Tom Scocca is the managing editor of Deadspin and the author of Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.

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