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Welcome to the inaugural edition of The Fresh Letter, my weekly newsletter where I make unfortunate tip-centric puns and share my tried-and-true kitchen tricks with you, dear reader. Obviously, I’m extremely happy you’re here! But I’m also anxious to get right down to business because today’s tip is going to make your life at least one thousand times easier and more delicious, or your money* back. Here’s what I’ve got up my sleeve:
*this newsletter is free, so...no money to return. But if you do want to pay me, you can upgrade your subscription and get my meal prep and menu planning resource sent to you every Friday. How’s that for fun cross-promotion?
The secret to perfectly caramelized onions? Water.
“But Erica,” you say, “I thought the secret to perfectly caramelized onions is using a very specifically proportioned combination of butter and oil, adding a teaspoon of brown sugar, using a pot instead of a pan, keeping the heat very low and very, very slow, saying a silent prayer to the onion gods, etc., etc., etc.” Yes, in my experience, all of those things actually can help you cook good caramelized onions. Especially praying to the onion gods. What I’m talking about, though, is a fool-proof method with a 100% success rate to render beautiful, silky-sweet, uniformly caramelized onions. Time for an anecdote:
In culinary school, my cohort and I were tasked with cooking curriculum-appropriate recipes during each class period. Early in my tenure, I turned my back on a pan of sautéing onions for moments and came back to find they were a little burnt. I’m talking a few crisp edges. The chef instructor, whose teaching style was notoriously uncompromising, said “Throw them away and start over. Immediately.” (“YES, CHEF, to the compost!”).
A few weeks later, with a different, slightly more *ahem* forgiving chef instructor, I overcooked my onions. Again. Shame on me. But I was a bit perplexed by the previous instructor’s strong reaction, so I called her over and asked if I should toss them. “Absolutely not, what a waste,” she said, “Add a splash of water!” Welcome to my ah-hah moment, friends. The water instantly distributed the slightly-too-browned parts throughout the entire pot and my onions no longer appeared burnt at all—they just looked caramelized. Once I realized what water could do for already-overcooked onions, I started wondering how good old H2O could help me if I got ahead of my carelessness and added it toward the beginning of cooking time. Which leads us to…
How to utilize water while caramelizing onions:
Get set up as you normally would. For me, this means cutting my onion(s) into 1/8-1/4” sauté slices. I heat a pot (that is slightly smaller than what feels appropriate because my aim is to crowd the onions to create steam, which is water, but is not the water I’m evangelizing here) over medium-low heat. I add an ample amount of my cooking fat of choice, usually mostly olive oil and maybe a little butter. Once the oil is hot but not smoking, I add my onions and a generous amount of salt. But you do you bebe!
After you hear the onions sizzling and see them starting to wilt (anywhere from 2-5 minutes) is when the water comes in. Add a splash—about 2-4 tablespoons—of water to your pot with the onions. No need to reduce the heat. That’s part of the glory of this method.
Continue cooking, adding water and stirring every 5-10 minutes, or as necessary as it evaporates. Do be sure to let it fully evaporate before you add more to encourage browning. You’ll know when it’s time to add more when you hear more urgent sizzling and see a little browning around the edges of the pot. Because the water is helping to evenly distribute the heat in the pot (it’s science, look it up!), you can step away from the onions for a few minutes without fear of returning to a charred mess.
Wait for your onions to reach their desired done-ness. This time will vary from person to person because I don’t know exactly how hot your stove is or exactly how done you like your onions. It took me about 45 minutes minutes to achieve the result pictured above.
Enjoy the fruits…well, alliums…of your very minimal labor. I love adding them to grilled cheese with a few slices of apple and a good amount of grainy mustard, stirring them into buttered pasta (look, even Martha uses water!), or honestly, eating them straight off a fork from the fridge.
And just like that, we’ve covered our first tip. Thanks so much for joining me and stay tuned for next Monday’s tip. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you—feel free to respond to this email to let me know if you take this tip for a test run, if you have a genius kitchen hack you’d love for me to include in a future edition, or if you’d just like to say hello. And if you want more meal prep-specific tips and an expertly curated menu on Fridays, read more about the paid subscription here, or…
With love and a *tip* of my chef’s hat,