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You Can't Rush Caramelized Onions

Nancy Leson
40 minutes from left to right in an All-Clad saucier.

Depending on your pan and the amount you're cooking, it'll take you at least 40 minutes to an hour to get onions to deliver up that golden brown sweetness.  Yet many recipes claim it can be done in five or ten minutes.

Who ya gonna believe, eaters?  The recipe writers or your lyin' eyes?

Nancy Leson just sent me Tom Scocca's article in Slate wondering why recipe writers so outrageously lowball the time it takes to caramelize onions.  And here from Food 52 is an article on the article.

The size and shape of the pot you use will affect the time it takes.  Onions in a tall narrow pot will take much longer to caramelize than those in a vessel with more surface area.  After the onions are beautifully brown you can transfer them to a soup pot for the rest of the recipe.

Now that's settled, let's make some onion soup.  Nancy loves Jim Drohman's recipe for French Onion Soup Lyonnaise from his Le Pichet restaurant.

Credit Nancy Leson / KNKX
It would be worth standing naked in a walk-in freezer for ten minutes just for the contrast of coming out and sitting down to this.

French Onion Soup with Gruyère Croutons

From Le Pichet, a cafe on First Avenue near Virginia Street. Featured in the 2003 edition of Braiden Rex-Johnson's Pike Place Market Cookbook (Sasquatch Books). Six 1/2-inch-thick slices of hearty bread 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter 2-1/2 pounds yellow onions, peeled and cut into thin slices 1/2 head garlic, peeled and cut into thin slices 1-1/2 cups medium-dry sherry 3/4 cup dry white wine 1 tbsp. fresh thyme, rinsed, leaves picked from the stems, and minced 1 bay leaf 6 to 8 cups homemade chicken stock Kosher salt Freshly ground black pepper 1/4 pound Gruyère cheese, grated Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place bread slices on a baking sheet and bake 8 to 10 minutes, turning once, or until dry and crisp. Remove from oven and reserve. Melt butter in a stockpot over medium heat. Add onions and garlic, stir well and cook 15 to 20 minutes or until dark brown in color but not burned, stirring occasionally. (Nancy says it took her 40 minutes) Add sherry, increase heat, and cook 10 minutes, or until sherry is almost completely reduced. Add white wine, stir well, and cook 5 minutes, or until reduced by half. Add thyme and bay leaf and 6 cups of the chicken stock. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook 20 minutes to meld the flavors, stirring occasionally. Add more stock as necessary to give a pleasing ratio of stock to onions. Skim off any fat that rises to top of pan and discard, then season to taste with salt and pepper. To serve, preheat broiler. Spoon the soup into individual oven-proof bowls, then top with the reserved croutons and cheese. Heat under the broiler until cheese turns golden and crusty. Serves 8 to 12 as an appetizer, 4 to 6 as an entrée. Jim Drohman, chef and owner of Le Pichet, recommends serving this soup with a light red wine, such as Beaujolais or Cabernet Franc, and a leafy green salad for a complete meal.

And here's a video of the whole process .

Now about that smell...

Onions, fish and shellfish stock, gamey meats all smell good while they're cooking.  It's later that the  "house-i-tosis" sets in. 

Nancy swears by this defunkification method: Heat a quarter cup ground cinnamon in a dry pan over low to medium heat until the aroma fills the house.  Come to think of it, that would be nice whether you needed it or not.

"I will not move my army without onions."  – Ulysses S. Grant

Dick Stein joined KNKX in January 1992. He retired in 2020 after three decades on air. During his storied radio career, he hosted the morning jazz show, co-hosted and produced "Food for Thought" with Nancy Leson and wrote and directed the Jimmy Jazzoid live radio musical comedies and 100 episodes of Jazz Kitchen.