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?

Caramelized onions in a pan.
How long does it really take to caramelize onions?

Photograph by John Shepherd/iStockphoto.

Browning onions is a matter of patience. My own patience ran out earlier this year while leafing through the New York Times food section. There, in the newspaper of record, was a recipe for savory scones with onions, currants, and caraway. Though I wasn't particularly interested in making savory scones, one passage caught my eye: 

"Add the onions to the skillet and increase the heat to medium-high. Cook until they begin to turn dark brown and somewhat soft, about 5 minutes. Add the oil and a pinch of the fine sea salt; continue cooking until the onions are soft and caramelized, about 5 minutes longer."

Soft, dark brown onions in five minutes. That is a lie. Fully caramelized onions in five minutes more. Also a lie.

There is no other word for it. Onions do not caramelize in five or 10 minutes. They never have, they never will—yet recipe writers have never stopped pretending that they will. I went on Twitter and said so, rudely, using CAPS LOCK. A chorus of frustrated cooks responded in kind ("That's on some bullshit. You want caramelized onions? Stir for 45 minutes").

As long as I've been cooking, I've been reading various versions of this lie, over and over. Here's Madhur Jaffrey, from her otherwise reliable Indian Cooking, explaining how to do the onions for rogan josh: "Stir and fry for about 5 minutes or until the onions turn a medium-brown colour." The Boston Globe, on preparing pearl onions for coq au vin: "Add the onions and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes or until golden." The Washington Post, on potato-green bean soup: "Add the onion and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown." 

If you added all those cooking times together end to end, you still wouldn't have caramelized onions. Here, telling the truth about how to prepare onions for French onion soup, is Julia Child: "[C]ook slowly until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Blend in the salt and sugar, raise heat to moderately high, and let the onions brown, stirring frequently until they are a dark walnut color, 25 to 30 minutes." Ten minutes plus 25 to 30 minutes equals 35 to 40 minutes. That is how long it takes to caramelize onions. 

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Telling the truth about caramelized onions would turn a lot of dinner-in-half-an-hour recipes into dinner-in-a-little-over-an-hour recipes. I emailed Sam Sifton, the Times food critic turned national editor, to ask if the Recipe Writing Guild had some secret agreement to print false estimates of onion-cooking time. He wrote back: "I can reveal that onion caramelization takes longer than the Guild believes. But it need not take as long as you believe it to take! You can speed it up with butter, so long as you are careful not to burn."

Could onions be browned, at all, in 10 minutes? I embarked on a quest to find out. Someone on Twitter had suggested things would go faster with sweet onions. This seemed a little like pepping up a bread pudding recipe by treating sliced pound cake as a kind of bread. But I bought a Tampico sweet onion, chopped half of it into tiny bits—only half, so as not to crowd the pan—and turned my biggest burner as high as it would go. Butter seemed a little risky at that temperature, so I went with olive oil, in a cheap, lightweight nonstick skillet. In five minutes, a few flecks of brown had appeared among the otherwise raw-looking onion bits. After eight minutes, some of the onion had begun to take on the scorched aspect of the unfortunate onions stuck to bagels. At the 10-minute mark, the brown flecks had turned black, in a mince that was a mix of brown and still-pale bits. The onion was done cooking—that is, it was beginning to be ruined—but it was not very well caramelized. At 11 minutes, I scraped an inedible mess out of the pan. 

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