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, 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 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.”

Fly vs. Flies

This morning, Martine found the following sentence in a recent Vanity Fair magazine article: “The couple still fly separately.”

There are two problems with that sentence; first, “the couple” is a singular object, so the verb should be “flies” not “fly” (Bob flies, Bob and Fred fly). So the immediate reaction is to change the line to “the couple still flies separately.”

But that doesn’t account for the second problem; “the couple” — as a singular object — cannot fly “separately” because, well, it’s a single thing. So it’s not just a grammatical issue; there’s a conceptual mistake.

Vanity Fair, as far as I can tell, has high editorial standards, so how could this double-whammy get through? In seeking the rationale for the first problem (fly vs. flies) I thought, “What would Bill Walsh do?” (If you have any interest in editorial machinations in a context that is generally free of the polarizing descriptive vs. prescriptive arguments, you should read Bill’s blog and his web site. Bill flies no flags, he just makes sense.)

Then, as I brushed my teeth, it came to me. “The couple,” in this sentence, is shorthand for “the members of the couple.” So in fact, it is a plural, not singular. The “error” is in not spelling it out, but the editorial argument is (probably) that doing so is unnecessarily awkward, and in the context of the paragraph, the context of “the couple” is obvious. Note that this interpretation solves both problems.

Prescriptivists (of which I am not but am often accused of being) will reject that position, and the descriptivists (whom I have been accused of disliking, when in fact I often side with them) have already stopped reading this post because they never saw a problem in the first place.

But what I’m interested in is the editorial position. Personally, I would have re-cast the sentence as “Mendez and Winslet still fly separately,” or simply “They still fly separately,” but it depends on how the rest of the paragraph is cast.

However, I now understand the choice of “fly” over “flies” even if I don’t fully agree with it. And now I will move on to the next thing.

And so passes a Sunday morning chez nous.

How I Waste My Time (#238)

I like Flickr. There is lots of good stuff on Flickr, and I’m not just talking about the photos. There are interesting discussions, cool tools, fun mapping toys, and of course lots and lots of images.

Flickr is one of the original “social networking” sites that came about before “social networking” became “a thing” (a thing which some of us have HAD IT UP TO HERE hearing about, by the way). It works because it is well thought out, nicely designed, and has a lot of interesting people on both the front end (the users) and the back end (the people who make Flickr). What it doesn’t have is a big stupid “hey everybody! I’m social goddamn networking!” flag flying over it. But I digress…

One of the great things about Flickr is that the Flickr experience is made by the users. For example, pretty much anyone can start a “group” (a collection of contributed images by people who share an interest). Unfortunately, by now there are far too many groups to even comprehend, so they don’t have the kind of cohesive sense of groupiness that they used to have. (For example, if you like pictures of black cats, there are dozens of cat photo groups that you can belong to.) But still, it’s a nice aspect of the Flickr package.

Overall that “of the people, by the people” is pretty cool, and it is reflective of the way social networking used to be before it went corporate and start-upy. But it also means you have to put up with a lot of dopiness and stupidity, because “the people” are, by and large, pretty dopey and stupid.

Your best photo’s what?

Tonight I found a Flickr group called “My Best Photo’s” (sic). As some of you might know, the plural (photos) does not take an apostrophe. “Photo’s” is the possessive; it means something belongs to a photo. So “My Best Photo’s” is incomplete. Your best photo’s what?

  • My Best Photo’s history?
  • My Best Photo’s asking price?
  • My Best Photo’s pet rat?

I fully acknowledge that anyone can make a mistake. Loyal readers know that this blog is peppered with more typos than a blood bank. But when I see them, or other people point them out, I correct them.

But “My Best Photo’s” has been running for at least 15 months. It has 3629 members and 28,533 photos in its group pool. Did none of those people think to correct the grammatical error in the group’s name?

So I sit here contemplating joining the group for the sole reason of pointing out the error. However, I’ve been around the Web’s blocks a few times, so I know how ultimately futile that would be. Instead I will simply bitch about it here, on my blog.

An award I could do without

I should also note that many of the images in the group are really outstanding. There are some great photographers on Flickr. However, even if I wanted to put an image forward as “my best,” I simply could not bear to do so in this group. It is so fundamentally wrong to have something that you consider your best defaced by such a glaringly obvious grammatical error; especially one that no one will step up and fix.

So I remain unacknowledged. My best photos end up on my photo blog, thank you very much, and my photos on Flickr continue to limp along, as they should, since they are not my best. They’re just there, happy to be looked at, but possessive of nothing.

The Ubiquitous Gregory Charles

Gregory Charles is everywhere. He’s a multi-talented, classically trained pianist and singer who hosts TV and radio shows in French-speaking Quebec, has acted in numerous stage and TV productions, gets tremendous airplay for his recently released easy-listening record album, and makes guest appearances on every second TV and radio show in Quebec (at least the ones in French).

Martine and I will get in the car and start driving into town. Whose show is on the radio? Gregory Charles. Crossing the Jacques Cartier Bridge, whose mug is staring down from a billboard? Gregory Charles.

We go shopping for shoes. Whose voice do we hear smoothly serenading us in from the store’s music system? Gregory Charles. We go to a concert that night and who makes a guest appearance? Gregory Charles. Later, at home, we’re channel flipping on the TV. Oh look, there’s Gregory Charles. Oh, look, there he is again. And again.

The guy is amazing – and everywhere. It seems like there’s nothing he cannot do. He sings, he composes, he plays musical instruments, he acts, he hosts, and he seems able to learn new things at the drop of a hat. “Hey Gregory Charles, how about doing some brain surgery while tapping out a Latino reinterpretation of Lord of the Dance? And while you’re at it, could you juggle these chainsaws?” No problem for Gregory Charles.

If you want the ultimate Gregory Charles experience, listen to his weekly radio show on Radio-Canada, called Des airs de toi, on Saturday afternoons (4:05 PM-7:00PM). Basically, you get Gregory Charles, his piano, and his vast personal library of recordings. He plays records, talks about them, sometimes sings along with them, mixes them up, matches them up, cuts into a solo for a while, cracks a joke or two, and tells a few stories. It’s unusual radio for sure, and not just because there’s no advertising.

Listening to Des airs de toi, you get the impression he’s simply sitting in a room having fun all by himself and you just happen to be listening in. Other times, it’s like he’s the talent at a piano bar and there’s only you, him, and one or two other patrons. It’s very intimate and personal, and spontaneous, which is a nice relief from the standard blah blah blah BLAAAHHHH! type of loudmouth crap you get from most radio personalities. Martine and I have often wondered if such a show would work on English radio. Who would host it? Would English-speaking radio listeners enjoy it? Would the formula even work in English?

Well guess what? CBC has found someone to recreate Des airs de toi in English. The show will air Sunday mornings on CBC Two, and be rebroadcast Sunday nights on CBC One. It will be broadcast from the host’s living room, where he has a grand piano and a vast collection of record albums.He will mix and match music, sing along, tell stories and jokes and whatever else strikes his fancy. Free-form radio in which the host loves his medium, loves his message, and has total creative freedom to basically just banter and jam.

The host for the new show, by the way, is Gregory Charles.