The onion is a vegetable I often take for granted, especially the common onions available year-round. White, yellow or red, these are harvested in the fall and intended to be stored. They differ from the young fresh onions we find from spring through summer at farmers markets that are juicy, mild and so crisp you can eat them raw. The year-round onions need heat to tame their sharp bite.
When shopping, choose onions that are firm, unblemished and heavy for their size. Store them in a dark place with plenty of ventilation, away from potatoes (or both will spoil). I prefer the common yellow to the red or white onions for long, slow cooking. The red turn a murky purple and lack savor; the white tend to have a sharper flavor, more moisture and take longer to brown.
Yellow onions are best for caramelizing. Sautéed for a long time over low heat, they become delectably velvety and candy-sweet, perfect for tangling with pasta, spreading over pizza, tucking into sandwiches, stirring into risotto or slathering on steak. They are the basis for a classic French onion soup and robust beef stew; their fragrance sparks hungers on blustery nights.
To caramelize onions, slice them very thin with a sharp knife because working with a blunt blade bruises the onion’s cells and may send a spray of juice into your eyes. Cut the unpeeled onion in half from root to tip then pry off the peel. Put the cut side down on a cutting board and keep the root intact to hold the layers in place while slicing.
Use a large nonstick pan so the onion spreads out across the surface. This encourages the development of a “fond,” those brown bits that cling to the bottom of the pan that are essential to the richness of this dish. Keep the heat low, so the onions do not scorch while they release their juices and natural sugars. As the juices slowly evaporate, the slices will begin to brown.
Once the process is underway, you don’t have to hover over the pan, just check every 10 minutes or so, stirrring and scraping, adjusting the heat so that the onions cook steadily and evenly. Extraordinarily flavorful and lush, caramelized onions dress up every winter dish they touch.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.