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random musings of a crazy cat lady

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Recipe Geek: Caramelized Onions

Recipe Geek: Caramelized Onions
As you might have already figured out, I like to read recipes and articles about food. Some of the best descriptions have the ability to make me want to try things that I normally don't even like. Today's recipe for caramelized onions is an excellent example of this.
I don't like onions very much, and they don't like me. If they're well cooked and present in small amounts, I appreciate their flavor-giving properties. If they're raw or undercooked, or if there's just too much of them, they give me major stomach heartburn and see to take forever to digest. I do like caramelized onions, but have never made them before. This recipe called for very slow cooking (4 -5 hours). During this time, a lot of the sugars and starches get caramelized in a process known as the Maillard reaction, and the stinky, heartburn provoking sulfur compounds get cooked off or converted into less offensive molecules. The end result is like onion marmalade.
It was a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, and I was home cleaning the house, doing laundry and pretending to work on the journal article I'm writing. My plan was to make the onions and then serve them to my parents, who were coming over for dinner. The rest of the dinner included a pork roast, polenta and asparagus.
I cut up 3 lbs of onions and dumped them into a medium sized dutch oven, along with 2 tsp salt and 1/3 cup olive oil. Much to my surprise, I didn't get teary eyed, even though I was wearing my contact lenses. I think these onions were rather old and dry (see picture #1). I then covered the pot and started to cook them over medium heat. After 1/2 hour, they had shrunk to about half their original size and there was a lot of liquid in the pot. At 45 minutes (picture 2), I took the cover off to evaporate a lot of the water. So far, the onions were right on schedule. I set the heat to the lowest setting.
After two hours, the onions had reduced to maybe 1/3 their original volume (picture 3). There was still a lot of liquid left, so I increased the heat a little bit and stirred them more often. They started bubbling faster. I tasted them - they were still pretty bland.
Even at the higher heat, the onions were still pretty mushy at 2 3/4 hours. They just kept sweating. At this point they were the color and consistency of apple pie filling. I started stirring them more frequently. By the time dinner rolled around, they were done. They developed a lot of color and flavor in the last hour. The original onion slices had disintegrated down to tiny little strips, and become very sweet. There was none of that icky burnt onion flavor that caramelized onions sometimes get. The original 3 lbs of onions shrank down to about 1 1/2 cups (see picture 4). The olive oil pooled a little bit around the onions. I might use less next time.
My parents liked the onions, especially my mom. We ate about half of them with the roast. When I gave the cats some little scraps, my mom insisted that I put some of the oil from the onions onto the cats' portion. Rugrat liked it too. I'm looking forward to having the leftovers (hello pizza toppings!), although I may freeze some for later. I'm also pleased to report that I didn't get heartburn.
I'll probably make them again. I may try a different recipe that doesn't take as long, unless it's a cold Sunday afternoon and I have time to kill.

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