How to Caramelize Onions in 10 Minutes or Less - A Rebuttal

 

This post was inspired by Tom Scocca who last Wednesday released an article on Slate.com alleging a vast conspiracy among recipe writers. He claims that the "Recipe Writing Guild" is intentionally deceitful about how long it takes to caramelize onions and it wasn't long until the "Food-Arazzi" jumped on the link bait bandwagon.

I disagreed, and this is my rebuttal.

Sources Cited in this Video

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And now you know the rest of the story ..... of why Stella is my go to culinary site. Food Network and Cooking Channel are for entertainment only. 

And thanx for the laugh. You 'caramelized' Mr Scocca in a way most entertaining. 

For a home cook though, my 9K BTU Frigidaire burner is no match for your 25K BTU Montague burner. For us homies, it will take longer .... if Alton says so. ;-)

Thanx Chef for being ....... you. Love this site.
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Cant wait to get out my Lodge cast iron skillet and commence to some 10 minute caramelized onions.  smiley

jwgjr

The end result have the color of caramelized onion, but do they have the caramelized sugar? It seems like all the color came from infusion in the deglazed fond-- not from caramelization of the sugars. And by repeatedly adding a deglazing liquid, the temp is brought back down below the caramelization temperatures of the sugars in onions (fructose-230F, sucrose and glucose-320F). 

 

Could these be blind tasted against a 45 minute batch with no discernable (or negligible) taste difference?

Dan Terrill

What an awesome takedown! That was brilliant! I hope you never get me in your sites!

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Which do you* think would be the best cast iron for this purpose?:

 

Well-seasoned cast iron (dark black)

Smooth, glossy enamel cast iron (usually white or cream)

Matte enamel cast iron (usually black)

Satin-enamel (usually black)

 

* Any registered forum member who has actual experience cooking onions with cast iron

Timothy R Garcia

Wow, that was a pretty strong rebuttal.  I would be fairly frustrated with this situation as well, if I were an online recipe writer.

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Someone had a good weekend at the evil recipe writing guild convention, haha.  

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Sorry I took so long to respond. I've been on vacation in Napa for this week and have no-wifi access (currently at a cafe hammering out e-mails).

 

@skflyfish,

 

Thanks, glad you enjoyed the video. I've been able to also replicate this on my large electrical burner at home. Haven't tried it on a home version of a gas stove.

 

Obviously, the overall point of the video, besides the technique, is that people shouldn't make such large generalization when it comes to cooking unless they can really back it up. If the article was Scocca arguing why he thinks it's better to take a long time when caramelizing onions, I would've had absolutely no issue. But saying that's it's never been done and that it can't be done warranted a response and a couple snarky wise cracks IMO. ;-)

 

@Elliot,

 

Don't forget the magical butter and tap water.

 

@jwgjr,

 

Great question. Yes, it is true that it takes time and heat to break down the fructose chains in the onion which is what makes caramelized onions sweet. However, I'm not convinced that it takes 40 minutes either to fully break down the onion's fructose chains. I've searched for scientific literature on this point to come up with a precise time and temperature, but have yet to find it. What I do know though is that this process results in extremely sweet, soft and dark brown onions that have no hint of raw onion flavor.

 

I haven't done a blind taste test and I wouldn't go as far as saying that these onions are better then the ones cooked over slow heat for 45-60 minutes. If I were to make a classic French Onion soup, I would most likely caramelize my onions over a long period of time.

 

My issue with Scocca's article wasn't that he said caramelized onions that are cooked for at least 40 minutes are better; my issue was with him saying "It's never been done" and it is "impossible."

 

The onions that resulted from this video were used to make a caramelized onion scone that was absolutely amazing (the scone definitely tasted like caramelized onions).

 

Also, the fond is created by the sugars in the onion caramelizing on the bottom of the pan. Just enough water is added so that the surface of the pan cools just enough to release the fond, but the core of the pan is still raging hot, which allows for the surface of the pan to recharge quickly. So with this technique, you're basically controlling the surface temperature of your pan with water instead of the heat source. This is why I stress the importance of having a pan that has the ability to retain heat. This technique can not be done with a nonstick or thin aluminum pan.

 

In Short: Would I use this technique to make French Onion Soup? No. Does this technique result in caramelized onions that are soft, brown and "onion sweet" that would work well for pizzas, baked goods and burgers; in my opinion and experience, yes.

 

@Dan Terrill,

 

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the video. This sort of thing isn't really in my nature or what this site is about. However, I felt that someone had to stand up and address the lack of research and authority that many food articles are written with and that some within the culinary niche need to understand that the influence they enjoy is a huge responsibility that they shouldn't take lightly.

 

@Green Bake,

 

I think they'd all work fine. I'm not sure if one is absolutely better then the other. I do know this though; all of them are more suited for this task then the pan I used in the video, so I know they'd all get the job done.

 

@Timothy R Garcia,

 

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the rebuttal. One point I wish I was more clear on wasn't that I was necessarily defending recipe writers (there are some that are really good, others, not so much). My real issue was with Scocca making such bold statements and accusations when he obviously didn't have a firm grasp on what he was talking about and then influential voices in the culinary niche carrying the torch without looking at the article analytically first.

 

@mstone714,

 

Damn evil empire. They ruin everything.

 


Again, sorry for the time it took for me to respond. I'll be on vacation until Friday, so I'll be able to read any additional questions or comments posted here, but probably won't have a chance to respond or comment myself until then.

 

Jacob

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caramelized onions in my cast iron pan last night in less than 10 minutes.  Must have been the use of the magic wooden spoon made from fois producing ducks.

 

@Jacob,  enjoy your well deserved vacation in Napa!

Harissa

I stumbled onto your site while searching for a chicken thigh recipe. I am from across the pond and had  never heard of Tom Scocca. I would not want be in his shoes, you humorously demolished him.

 

Traditionally I have been using the slow way of caramelising onions. I tried your quick and dirty way and must say the results were pleasing.

 

Great site. I have downloaded al your audio podcasts and listen to them during my commute. I really appreciate the in depth discussion of the various topics. Thanks for all you hard work.

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Thanks so much for putting this video together.  I have been using the 10 minute technique for years.  It was just by accident at first, but the result is excellent so I stuck with it, but I have always felt that I must be doing something wrong to get the same product in less time than anyone else on the planet.  Apparently, our local cows are drinking plenty of whiskey too!

As for the pan, I either use stainless or cast iron, whichever strikes my fancy, and they are both fine.    

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whats it like to get your ass kissed on a public forum

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Bravo for this video. I currently attend Le Cordon Bleu and we caramelize onions exactly the same way. Just as people have been doing so for centuries.

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I should say that while it is true they teach,(at Le Cordon Bleu), the slow and low for French onion soup, however they also go over the fast with gas method which you showed  in your video.

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Well I was wrong. My 9K BTU Frigidaire burner took all of 8 minutes to caramelize a half a yellow onion in a 8 inch Update saute pan. The taste was sweet and smokey and went well on my pizza.

 

Thx.

helpmerhonda

and for his next trick, Chef Burton will show us how to make a sink full of dirty dishes instantly disappear...

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Looks like you need to set Wikipedia straight too, eh. ;-)

 

Caramelized onions, which are used in dishes like French onion soup. Onions require 30 to 45 minutes of cooking to caramelize.[3]

 

3. ^ Scocca, Tom. Layers of Deceit: Why do recipe writers lie and lie and lie about how long it takes to caramelize onions? Slate.com, May 2, 2012.

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Chef Burton,

 

I'm no chef, just an avid cook. Food Snobs, and yes, I've said it, often have their heads so far up their arses they refuse to come up for air long enough to...well, you know what I'm saying.

 

Some folks just refuse to consider any method that is not "purist" or conventional, especially within the realm of any established art forms.  

 

Thanks for proving your argument through actual demonstration and facts. I'm definitely going to employ this method whenever it is applicable. 

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Chef Burton,

 

Do you feel there is any validity to the argument that this 10-minute method over-browns and over-cooks the onions too early in the process via the high heat & butter? 

 

I found the SLATE article, and here is a typical response to your video rebuttal in the comments section of this article: "I watched that [your video], and laughed. Those are not caramelized onions. Those are 'slightly burned onions that look similar to caramelized onions."

 

Personally, I don't care if the end result is sweet, soft brown onions.

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Ahhh I could not finish the video, at around minute 11 got cut off. I did not find it in youtube either, and I really want to finish it. This is what I call real entertainment! 
   
   I tried both methods in my kitchen, and I can tell you that there is a slight diference in taste.  At the end both methods achieve it's final purpose, caramelized onions. Personally I go with the ten minute method! 

 Thanks Chef Burton
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Try right clicking on the following link and downloading the video directly: http://stellaculinary.net/videos/kitchen-prep/caramelized-onion-rebuttal...

Let me know if you still have issues.
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  Thank you Chef Burton, 

   I could finish it with the link you provided. I have a question, did food and wine magazine actually published that recipe you show? or was it part of the dramatization?
   
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Food and Wine actually did publish that recipe shown in the video. In fact, the main point of this video was to expose how one dimensional the online food media is and how they post so much non-sense without even a second thought. My entire argument was with a combined readership of millions, they need to be more concious of the information they publish. The influence the websites mentioned in this video carry is a large responsibility that they shouldn't take lightly.

Here's a link to the Chicken Quesadillia with "Legit" caramelized onions: http://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/2012/5/2/chicken-quesadillas-with-legit...
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  I read all the links I found on this page on the subject. What surprises me the most is that these influencial print and online media would be influnced by an article like that. It seems to me that the responsability the print and online media have to inform the general public with veracity and impartiality it's bigger than ever. More and more people, use magazines and internet to get informed and learn.
  I believe that this is like saying that tomato sauce made in 30 minutes is not tomato sauce unless it was made in 3 hours. I think is more a matter of personal taste and/or the final use that they are going to have. 
  Thank you Chef Burton for putting this into light for people like me who are in their learning path to culinary knoledge!
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Everyone likes to join a winning team.

If an author perceives that something is true (and the idea is “popular”), that person will come up with the “proof” (that does not prove anything).

Just like in politics.
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@Marco099,

Sorry that I just saw your comment on this. Yes, the common contrarian response to this video is people saying "those aren't caramelized onions," and my reply is "what is your definition of caramelized onions?"

If your definition is soft, dark-brown and sweet, then yes, these are absolutely caramelized onions. If someone doesn't want to believe that these are carmelized onions, that's up to them. When I make French onion soup, I carmelize A LOT of onions in a large pot over very low heat. This process takes HOURS. But if I want to throw some carmelized onions on a burger, pizza or in a bread, I'm not going to add an extra 40-60 minutes of prep when this 10 (or even 15) minute version yields more than sufficient results.

Plus, this guy was trying to wax poetically about carmelizing onions and openly stated that he used a non-stick pan to run his "test." The ignorance of this alone needed to be addressed.
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He got the wax right (fat), but not the poetry (argument).

He setup the “journalists” out there and they “bit.” They must be full (so to speak).
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People in general should(but they don't always do) make an informed decision on what to support.  But the biggest issue is with the people actually providing the information. Somebody should have written some article about the different ways of developing flavor. Some very talented chefs can develop great depths of flavor in a little amount of time.
I think that caramelized onions is not a defined square recipe, but a term adjoined to a final product. Brown, and sweet tasting onions.
  
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As someone who has studied and practices various arts, this example, this "critic", reminds me of the art world in some ways. The posturing that occurs where critics, wealthy interests, various trade rags try to control the narrative, control who is allowed entrance into their world, define talent, validate or invalidate technique, make names for themselves etc.. But they are typically spoiled, monied, no-talent hacks who wouldn't dare get their hands dirty, and in this case, couldn't make toast properly.

Perfect example: Adam Rappaport, the former editor-in-chief of GQ mag is now the editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit. Does that make any sense, beyond simply connections? It does when you see 'acclaimed chef' Gweyneth Paltro on one of his first covers. You can flush both those rags down the toilet.
 
Any idiot who's used a non-stick pan just once realizes you can't achieve a fond, nor would you ever use one under high heat. 

BTW, I have tried this fast technique and the results were great, especially for the purposes Chef Jacob uses it for. I now use it a lot.
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Yeah, I found it commical how dismissive people were of this technique when they obviously never tried it themselves. Oh well, you can't force people out of ignorance. All I can do is put the information out there and let people use it how they may.
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I just gotta say, this video was awesome! I was crying from laughter the whole time, I LOVE sarcasm! And on top of that, I learned something great. I love caramelized onions but haaaaaatted the long long time it took to get them.. This is amazing, I'm actually going to try it literally right now. I'm a little nervous about the smoke from the butter at high heat setting off my smoke detectors in my apartment, buuuuuuuuut I'll just apologize to my neighbors later ;)

Thanks again Chef!
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Hey, just wanted to say that the bit about the nonstick pan was really a cute bit- I think that people really think that Teflon is magic technology and don't get what it really does, lol.  Not that I don't use Teflon, but the point about "right tool for right job" is so true; there is a reason why most commercial cooking is NOT on non-stick lightweight aluminum.

I think that food-snobbery and refusal to examine methods and the science behind cooking is the source of 99% of this kind of silly prejudice; one hopes that modern cooking schools are finally starting to teach a bit about the chemical and physical processes that are happening to their students and are encouraging them to be scientific rather that just blindly follow the "this is how we've always done it" methods. 

Ever since I read "What Einstein Told His Cook" and "Molecular Gastronomy" I've been unable to look at these kinds of situations the same way; understanding the underlying processes is so important if we're going to do things quickly but arrive at the right results. 

Anyhow, I think it's interesting that for large-batch cooking or commercial-scale work (for classic French Onion soup base, for example) this is questionable as the "perfect" method, because I honestly think that might be the wrong question.

I think the real question here is, "at what temperatures and for how long do we really need the onions' sugars before the Maillard reactions take place?".  I think that is the right question, as those temperatures pretty much require cellular breakdown (i.e., softening) and other precursors to take place.

I suspect that the answer to that is largely dependent on the thinness of the slices and the available heat (i.e., this doesn't work better for large batches because so much of the batch cannot be exposed to the same heat levels- the onions above the bottom layer are, essentially, steaming, not reaching Maillard temps). 

But if onions were put upon a steel tray in a thin, even layer with melted, nearly moisture-free butter and pushed through a pizza oven with a conveyer system (or a bread toaster or whatever), then deglazed / scraped to get the fond, turned and passed through again, one could produce really huge volumes of caramelized onions in a very short period and at a very low labor cost.  Anyhow, I've never tried this out, but I think it might be the fast-n-cheap way to do this commercially- use Science :)
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@thatGuy,

Nice comment; welcome to Stella Culinary.

When making French Onion soup, I'll slowly caramelize onions for a few hours because it's important to build those flavors. But when making caramelized onions to top my hamburger, I think it's a little silly to take 45 minutes to do that.
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