Cookery School at Little Portland Street founder Rosalind Rathouse occasionally reads, hears or sees something that gets her attention and inspires her to have a say. We call this Ros’s Rants…
Last week I was alerted to a tweet that stated the author felt deceived by the cooking community after he had read a 2012 article on Slate.com about how long it really takes to caramelise an onion (35-40 minutes) versus what a recipe typically says (5-8 minutes).
I read the article and, quite frankly, that is what makes me so upset about food writing and food cooking these days! I can assure you that neither my mother or grandmother – both of whom cooked delicious food – would have wasted their time on such ridiculousness as caramelising onions for half an hour. I despair that the most basic of techniques could involve someone disapproving of what others do.
In some of the regional cuisines that we do at Cookery School, I was interested to see that the teachers sprinkle salt over the onions in the pan that are browning – in oil or choice of butter – to help extract moisture. The liquid in the pan helps to soften the onions more quickly. That technique, in combination with cooking at a higher heat, causes onions to soften and caramelise quite quickly.
Here at Cookery School, we brown onions on high heat and generally using extra virgin olive oil or sometimes with a mixture of olive oil and rapeseed oil (without using salt). We start the entire process from cold, i.e. we do not preheat the pan or the oil before putting in the onions. We encourage our cooks not to disturb until they see the first signs of browning and only then to stir so that the onions are agitated and do not burn. Again, desist from stirring, but watch carefully for more gentle browning!
Once the onions have all started to soften and have turned a lovely golden brown, the heat can be turned down. The onions can even be covered to help keep steam in and soften them further. When they are brown, it is due to the sugars in the onions caramelising – quick or slow frying, both will no doubt allow for caramelising but over different periods of time.
During Cookery School lessons, we want to squeeze as much in during a class, so we opt to do our onions quickly. If you are at home and want to take your time over it (e.g. do other things whilst the onions brown), then do them slowly.
All of this is to say, don’t sweat the small stuff. Do what is right for you and those for whom you are cooking.