Slowly sauteing onions over medium heat completely changes them, from sharp and pungent into soft, flavorful and caramelized. And while you need to be patient, the actual cooking time is just 10 minutes.
Do you like onions? For me, it depends. When they're raw, I don't really like them. I sometimes add them (especially red onions) to salads such as this arugula salad or asparagus salad. But I mostly stay away from them. I find them too sharp.
But when cooked, I LOVE them. Sauteed onions, especially when slowly and patiently caramelized, are a delicacy. Their sharpness disappears, and they become wonderfully flavorful in a way that enhances other foods rather than overpowers them.
You'll only need three ingredients to make sauteed onions. The exact measurements are listed in the recipe card below. Here's an overview of what you'll need:
Onions: I almost always use yellow onions in this recipe. White onions work too.
Olive oil: I love cooking with this very flavorful oil, and since we're cooking the onions over medium heat, I don't worry about its relatively low smoke point. However, if you prefer, you can use butter or ghee instead. Both are delicious.
Kosher salt: After adding the onion rings to the hot oil, I sprinkle them with a little salt, about ½ teaspoon. If you're using fine salt rather than kosher salt, you might want to use less of it.
How to saute onions
It's truly easy and simple. All you need is a little patience! The detailed instructions are included in the recipe card below. Here are the basic steps:
Your first step is to peel the onion and slice it into fairly thin slices, as shown in the video below. Then separate the slices into rings.
Now, heat some olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat until it shimmers, about 2 minutes.
Add the onion rings to the oil. Use a wooden spoon to spread them evenly in the skillet. Sprinkle them with salt.
This is where patience becomes important. You will need to cook the onions, stirring frequently, until they are soft, golden, and browned in spots. This will probably take about 10 minutes over medium heat.
Be ready for the onions to lose quite a bit of volume as you slowly cook them! I think they end up being half the volume they were before cooking. So take that into account when deciding how much to make.
Expert tip: cook over medium heat
It's tempting to crank the heat up when cooking onions. But, while we don't necessarily try to get them super browned and caramelized, we do want them evenly soft and golden, with some brown bits.
So while we don't need to cook them over LOW heat, we should certainly stick with MEDIUM heat and not be tempted to cook them over medium-high heat. If we do, it would result in uneven results and they might even burn.
Frequently asked questions
Traditional recipes for caramelized onions will instruct you to cook the onions over low heat for about 45 minutes. I am way too impatient for that. Since I use the onions to top steaks, burgers, and livers, I really don't need them super-caramelized and evenly cooked. It's OK if they're mostly soft and golden, with parts of them browned and caramelized.
So in my version, I only cook saute them for 10 minutes over medium heat. If you want a traditional result - super soft, sticky, and evenly browned - you should cook them for 45 minutes over low heat, stirring frequently.
I have a large nonstick skillet that I always use when making this recipe. I haven't experimented with other types of skillets (such as stainless steel), so I can't tell you if the onions might stick to other surfaces or if you'd need to use more oil. I wrote this recipe assuming you would use a nonstick skillet.
There's no need to cover the pan when cooking onions. You want to stir them often, so it's better to have easy access to them and leave the pan uncovered.
How to use them
Another great use for them is to add them to omelets and frittatas. Sometimes I mix them into this mushroom frittata. It's really good!
Lastly, I like to add then to sandwiches. Sometimes I add them to this grilled cheese sandwich. Mmm good!
You can keep the leftovers in the fridge, in an airtight container, for up to 4 days. When ready to use them, simply reheat them in the microwave on 50% power. They will be just as good as when freshly made.
Sauteed onions keep quite well, actually. When I make liver and onions, I sometimes cook the onions a couple of days ahead of time, then refrigerate them until I can get to the grocery store for some fresh livers.
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10-Minute Sauteed Onions
- 1 large yellow onion
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- Peel the onion. Slice it into fairly thin slices, as shown in the video below. Separate the slices into rings.
- Heat the olive oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until it shimmers, about 2 minutes.
- Add the onion rings to the oil. Use a wooden spoon to spread them evenly in the skillet. Sprinkle them with salt.
- Cook the onions, stirring frequently, until they are soft and golden-brown, about 10 minutes.