The process of caramelising onions is really quite simple: you heat a saucepan (heavy-bottomed, the size depends really on how much onions you are cooking), melt some butter in it, add the onions (sliced uniformly thin), sprinkle some salt (just a little, it helps release the moisture from the onions which aids the process) and let it cook over a very low heat. The onions need some babysitting though. Not in the beginning, but once they start to colour, you need to stir them so they don't stick to the pan and burn. Oh yes, once they start to colour, I usually add a little sugar too. And, later on a little balsamic vinegar. Or distilled white vinegar if you, like me, are out of balsamic.
Sounds simple enough, right?
Well, who'd have thought that caramelising onions would be the subject of an online stand-off between two men, or rather one man and a legion (well, a whole bunch) of cooks.
So here's the story.
Tom Scocca, a writer for Slate magazine, wrote a scathing piece accusing recipe writers of lying to readers by suggesting that onions can be caramelised in just 10 to 15 minutes. Scocca sounded seriously affronted. "Soft, dark brown onions in five minutes. That is a lie. Fully caramelized onions in five minutes more. Also a lie," he wrote. he went on to name a few renowned food writers and call out their "lies". Man! The man got really emotional. I mean, I get it ... to a point. When i follow recipes to the letter and face failure and realise that the instructions weren't that accurate, I get a little frustrated. But Scocca was maaaaad. So mad it was a little funny. You can read his article here.
So anyway, the fallout from that article was epic. Food writers, home cooks and chefs were annoyed at Scocca. And then came the best food throwdown I've seen. A video posted by a chef called Jacob Burton who shared his expertise on cooking techniques on The Stella Culinary School Podcast. Boy was he annoyed by Scocca's piece. He decided to prove the Slate writer wrong. He filmed himself caramelising onions in just 10 minutes and while the onions cooked, he took the chance to rebut Scocca's allegations, making fun of the article and the writer in the process. Men! It's a funny and educational video and you might want to watch it here.
Who is right? I don't dare comment. I will just share my method of caramelising onions which has been fool-proof thus far. If you want to read more about caramelising onions, this article on the Serious Eats site is pretty good.
I made a tart as well as some mini pies. No, I wasn't being overly ambitious — I just had some leftover pastry which I didn't really want to freeze.
So, let's talk about the pastry. I flavoured my pastry with ground hazelnuts. Oh my. It was a good move, I must say. The pastry was awesome in flavour and texture. Yum!! You have to try it. You just have to.
Caramelised Onion Tart
100g plain flour
30g ground hazelnuts
70g butter, cold and cut into cubes.
1/4 tsp salt
4-6 tbsp cold milk/water
10 medium to large onions (I used a mixture of yellow and red onions), sliced uniformly thin
pinch of salt
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp vinegar/balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup sauteed mushrooms
1/4 cup cottage cheese, broken up
Making the pastry.
Whisk together the flour, hazelnuts and salt in a big bowl. Add the cubed, cold butter and with your fingers, rub the butter into the flour until you get what looks like coarse breadcrumbs. Add the cold liquid a little at a time and mix gently till a dough forms nicely. Shape into a disc, wrap in cling film and chill for at least 30mins.
Once chilled, place the dough in between two sheets of cling film and roll out to fit a 9 inch tart pan (with a loose bottom). The dough should be about 2 mm thick. Transfer gently onto the tart pan and gently mould the dough into the pan. Trim the edges, puncture the base with a fork and bake for 15 mins or till the pastry is beginning to brown and the base starts to get firm.
Cooking the onions.
I usually start cooking the onions as I wait for the pastry to chill.
Heat a heavy bottomed skillet on the stove. A cast iron pan is best but a stainless steel one isn't bad either. If you don't have either, you can use a regular pan.
When the pan is hot, lower the heat and add the butter. Let it melt and brown a little. Add the onions and the salt toss to make sure all the onions are coated with butter. Let the onions cook for 5-10 mins. Stir and add the sugar. Cook the onions further, stirring again after 5 mins. As the onions begin to colour, you will need to stir more frequently. As the onions cook, a fond (the brown bits that form at the bottom of a pan as you are cooking meat or in this case onions) may start to form at them bottom of the pan. Don't panic. Add the vinegar or some water and deglaze before continuing to cook.
So, how long do I cook the onions? I will admit, it takes me about 45 minutes but I cook them on a very low heat. I have not tried cooking them on high heat as Chef Burton demonstrates but I am inclined to give it a go. What you want is a deep brown, slightly reddish, hue to your onions. They will be jammy and sticky and deliciously sweet.
Assembling the tart
Arrange the sauteed mushrooms and cheese on the base of the tart. This is entirely optional. Pile the onions into the shell. Dot with a little butter and bake for 10-15 mins or till the shell is lightly golden and cooked through.