I love onions. I absolutely love them but the way you cook them can make a massive difference to any dish. If, like me, you’ve tried to caramelise onions in the past but failed, ending up settling for a soggy onion substitute or the burnt equivalent, then keep reading. Sure, I can cook but I’m no chef, so I’ve spent hours shifting through countless YouTube clips, cookbooks and articles on the web. I’ve also been trying things out in the kitchen and have put together a few tips, techniques and recipes to help you get great home cooked onions every time.
How much onion?
One of the things that annoys me most is when recipe writers and chefs write just a number of onions on their recipe list. Not a weight and at best in size only. As home cooks we are expected to know what this means. How big is a large onion? Is one large onion equivalent to two small onions? One of the recipes that I recently used asked for 7-10 onions. How easy would it be to make an inedible dish and believe that the recipe is at fault? In my recipes I always give the weight & type of onion (white/red). As a rule of thumb, I run with 1 Small onion = 75g-100g / 1 Medium onion = 150g-200g / 1 Large onion = 250g-350g.
How to cut an onion
The best way to cut an onion depends on how secure you feel with a sharp knife and the type of cut onion you require. I know it sounds mad, but you stand less chance of cutting yourself with a sharp knife than a blunt one and so the sooner you get comfortable with one, probably the better!
There are so many YouTube clips out there on how to chop an onion and not all chefs follow suit. I think this clip is excellent and shows a great way to cut onions for hot dogs and burgers. Watch a few clips and see what works for you. Practice each time until you feel safe. Personally, I use two different methods and two different knives. It all comes down to which knife is closest at the time!
Top tips for frying onions
Turns out onions are a very personal thing! We all have different tastes. Some of us like our onions soft, others like them crispy.
Whatever your preference though, the key to frying onions is not to cook them too fast. If the heat is too high, it will only result in some of the onions ending up burnt. Slow and low is best – and always break your onions up before they go into the pan.
If you’re cooking onions for your burgers or hotdogs, try making these in advance. Cook them to the colour you want, then when the meat/veggie option is almost ready, reheat them. That way you won’t overcook the filling before the onions are ready and it’s much less stressful.
As a guide, slice 100g -150g of white onions per person depending on how well done you like them (remember the more you cook them, the more they shrink). Heat 1 Tbsp of vegetable oil in a suitable- sized pan, over a medium to high heat. When the oil is hot, add the onions. Reduce the heat to a medium and gently fry until you’ve got the cooked onions you want.
How to caramelise onions
If you fancy deliciously sweet and sticky onions instead, caramelised onions are a really easy alternative to try. They also cook down in quantity so again allow at least 100g per person or 150g if you like your onions to be a very dark brown. You’ll also need ½ Tbsp of vegetable oil and 10g of salted butter per person. The salt helps bring out the moisture in the onions, helping them cook quicker and the butter helps stop them burning. If you can’t have salt, use unsalted butter. It will just take that bit longer to cook. If you don’t want, or can’t have, dairy products, try using a dairy free spread with the oil instead.
In a suitable sized frying pan over a medium heat, add the oil and butter. When the butter has melted, add the onions and coat well with the mixture. This is not a fast process and can’t be rushed and can take as long as 45 minutes. Slowly fry the onions, stirring occasionally and scraping the brown bits in with the onions to add flavour. When the onions are dark brown in colour, they are ready.
If you’ve made more onions than you need, they can be frozen for another time or used to make onion gravy, onion tarts or the fab caramelised onion humous recipe below.
Recipe for Balsamic Caramelised Onions
This is my favourite by far. Use a good quality balsamic vinegar (I use Reggio Emilia). Expect to pay around £8 to £15 for a 250ml bottle and make sure it has Aceto Balsamico on the label. You can pay a lot more but this price should get you a decent quality vinegar for frying onions.
Ingredients: 1 Tbsp olive oil, 1 tsp soft brown sugar, 250g white onions sliced and broken up, 1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
Instructions: Heat the olive oil over a medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the sugar & mix well with the oil. Add the onions to the pan and mix well with the oil. Add the balsamic vinegar & mix well with the onions. Keep stirring every 5 minutes until you get the shade of onions you require. I like mine mid to dark brown!
If you’re making the balsamic caramelised onions to use straight away, cook them as above. If you’re planning on using them as a topping on a baked tart, undercook them slightly and let the baking process finish them off.
To add another flavour to the mix, try using Little Black Hen’s Black Garlic Balsamic Vinegar.
Recipe for Balsamic Caramelised Onion Humous
Ingredients: Balsamic caramelised onions as above, 2 Tbsp lemon juice, 3 garlic cloves peeled, 2 Tbsp olive oil, 1 Tbsp water, 3 Tbsp (50g) tahini, 1 tsp ground cumin, ½ tsp sea salt, 1 can (400g) chickpeas drained
Instructions: Cook the onions as above and set to one side until needed.
In a food processor, liquidizer or blending cup (if you are using a hand blender), add the lemon juice, garlic cloves, olive oil, water, tahini, ground cumin and sea salt. Add the onions on top and blitz until smooth. Now add the chickpeas and blitz until smooth. Around three minutes should do the trick and then you’re ready to serve. Makes around 440g of humous.
Check out our recipe page for other recipe ideas, with and without onions!