11/04/2011 12:07 pm ET | Updated Aug 31, 2012

How To Caramelize Onions

The goal when caramelizing onions is to bring out their natural sugars without burning them, says Chef Brannon Soileau of The Culinary Institute of America. The way to do this most effectively is to use high heat and a minimal amount of oil. He preheats a nonstick pan, then adds olive oil. (Use moderation here: Too much fat, and you'll end up frying the onions. Not enough, and they'll char.) Then it's all just a waiting game. Don't shake the pan too often -- let the heat do the work. As the sugars come out, the onions will pick up a gorgeous brown color. Sugars can burn, so as the onions progress, turn down the heat a bit. When they're finished (they'll look golden and glossy), you can use them on a burger, on top of pizza, or even in mashed potatoes.

Video Transcript

HI, I'm Chef Brannon Soileau from the Culinary Institute of America, and I'm going to show you this kitchen basic: how to caramelize onions.

When caramelizing onions, you have to first understand what it is that we're doing. We're trying to remove certain sugars from vegetables, by using high heat and a minimal amount of fat. That said, I'm going to kick up the heat on this dish; I have to have a high heat in the surface of my pan. If I'm going to caramelize this amount of onions, I don't want a surface area that's huge, because it's going to burn and fry up. That being said, I don't want the onions to be either stacked up on top of each other, where they are basically sweating or steaming. It doesn't really matter what size you cut your onions, the key is that they're uniform, so they're going to caramelize in the same manner. In this case I'm using olive oil, which cooks at nice high temperatures, because we need high heat and minimal fat to pull sugars from the onions.

I want to put just a minimal layer of fat in the base of my pan. Too much fat, I fry the onions. Not enough fat, I char the onions. It is a game of finesse. Notice how the smoke rises from the pan: I'm definitely hot enough.

I pour in my uniformly cut onions. Now, that's exactly what you want to hear: the sounds of those onions cracking and popping. I'm coating the onions with fat. I sauté them, I move them around a little bit; I coat them. Then I want to spread them out. They're kind of shiny; I may want to add a touch more fat. As I add the fat, you hear them crackle more. Not too much; you don't want to log them with fat, or they're going to fry.

A big mistake people make when they caramelize is they put the onions in, and they move them. They move them constantly. Do not move them! Allow the sugars to come out of them. Use your nose as your second sense. Smell the aroma: beautiful. I'm starting to smell the sugar, that caramel type smell that's coming out of these onions. I let them develop and the sugar come out of the onions, and now I'm going to move them around. You see what is starting to happen - color is happening on the bottoms of these onions. Beautiful.

So I move them. I like the amount of fat I have; I spread them back out, and I allow them to sit, I allow them to pull more sugar out. I don't keep moving them - if you continue to shake, you're going to steal the heat from the base of your pan, and you're not going to pull your sugars out like you want. Notice the sound has died down a little bit, but you still hear a nice even sizzle throughout the onions. That's exactly what you want to hear, to pull the sugars out.

Notice the depth of the onions now; they're really starting to get deep in color. This is an important time to talk about the temperature. As sugars start to come out, sugars burn. They're dangerous with high heat. You still need the heat, so you still see the smoke coming out, you still see the evaporation of the liquid off the onions, but maybe you have to lower the temperature of your surface.

Looks like the onions are about there now. This is what we're looking for, we've caramelized them, we've pulled sugars out. We're now going to put them in a bowl so you can see what we're looking at. You see that they actually glisten and they're caramel-like. What could you do with these onions? You could put them on a hamburger; you could put them on a pizza; you could roll them into fresh bread. You could put them in mashed potatoes. There are many ways to use caramelized onions.