The Great Caramelized Onions Debate

There’s been a kerfuffle over the past week around the issue of caramelized onions and whether or not they can be made in a short period of time, such as ten or fifteen minutes. (What you missed it?)

It started with this article on Slate.com, in which Tom Scocca complains that “recipe writers” lie about how long it takes to brown/caramelize onions (he uses the terms interchangeably). That caused a bit of a roar here and there, with some people agreeing with him that it takes at least 40 minutes to caramelize onions, and some disagreeing.

I can’t say I followed the issue very closely, as I’ve always been in the “low and slow” camp; my caramelized onions take anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, and I have many better things to do with my time than argue something like this. Then Jacob Burton of StellaCulinary.com weighed in, creating a somewhat annoying but quite informative video in which he proves that onions can be “caramelized” in ten minutes.

He raises some very good points about the kind of pan that is used and whatnot. However, I am not convinced. I absolutely do believe that Jacob Burton browned those onions in ten minutes, but that’s not the issue. The issue is one of terminology:

“Browning” and “caramelizing” are not exactly the same thing.

What Burton created was a really nice pan full of browned, fried onions. This is in contrast with what many people (myself included) refer to as “caramelized” onions, which are slow cooked for a long time. The result is something quite different. Fried onions have both a sharp and a mellow flavour, and a strong aroma. (Everyone loves the smell of fried onions!) Caramelized onions–and perhaps I should be specific and say slow caramelized onions–have a much mellower and sweeter flavour and a more low key, almost buttery aroma. The flavour of slow caramelized onions is hardly oniony at all; in some ways it’s more like baked apples in butter. (If you’re really patient, you can go for deep caramelized onions, like these.)

I suspect that back in Julia Childs’ day, few people confused the two. It was clear that fried onions were fried onions and caramelized onions were caramelized onions, the same way we distinguish between roasted meat and braised meat. But few people make the distinction now. I speculate it’s because “caramelized” sounds fancier and “fried” is like a swear word in some circles. With the rise of the “foodies,” and all the half-informed and competitive bombast that came with it, the result is that “caramelized” is now used whenever you apply heat to onions and make them turn colour.

Let’s drill down a bit more: Wikipedia makes a distinction between caramelization and the Maillard reaction. In brief, the Maillard reaction is:

…a form of nonenzymatic browning. It results from a chemical reaction between an amino acid and a reducing sugar, usually requiring heat.

And caramelization is:

… the browning of sugar, a process used extensively in cooking for the resulting nutty flavor and brown color. As the process occurs, volatile chemicals are released, producing the characteristic caramel flavor.

Sounds pretty similar, doesn’t it? The caramelization article goes on:

Like the Maillard reaction, caramelization is a type of non-enzymatic browning. However, unlike the Maillard reaction, caramelization is pyrolysis, as opposed to reaction with amino acids.

Aha! I’m no chemist, but based on the Wikipedia description of pyrolysis:

Pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material at elevated temperatures without the participation of oxygen.

And there, perhaps, lies the difference. Most recipes for slow caramelized onions call for low heat in a covered pan. That’s nowhere near an oxygen free environment, but it’s a lot less oxygen rich than something sizzling in an open pan over high heat with a lot of stirring. (You need to read the whole article to get the full picture, but suffice to say that my recipe for slow caramelized onions uses a very moist environment, exactly what is needed for pyrolysis.)

I won’t go on with the technical stuff because there are plenty of people on Reddit who will gladly dedicated their dying breath to the splitting of such hairs. I’ll leave it to them.

My point is that when you fry onions fast and hot, you get a different plate of food than when you cook them slowly under low heat. Both are good, but they are different. And because they are different, they should have different names.

I propose “fried onions” and “caramelized onions.”