Sensational caramelization

Long, slow cooking or a quick sizzle in butter can transform the humble onion; here are two ways to bring out their natural sweetness

Meaty French onion soup. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Meaty French onion soup. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Sat, Jan 25, 2014, 01:00

At first glance, onions might not seem like the star of the show. But they’re vital, a bit like the lighting guy for an ageing star. Their underwhelming appearance conceals a powerful package of goodness and flavour. They’re also one of our most inexpensive and widely eaten foods, and together with their pal garlic, they form the basis for literally thousands of dishes around the world.

I remember catering a special birthday party for a lovely couple whose first menu request was: “absolutely no onions and no garlic” as the husband couldn’t abide them. His wife said: “It’s a nightmare. Practically every recipe starts off with the instructions to sweat some onions and to add some garlic.” How right she was.

And with good reason, too. Depending on how long you cook them for, onions give a dish sweetness, freshness or depth of flavour. Sure, chopping them can make your eyes water, but when treated properly and partnered with the right ingredients, they’re mouth-watering too.

For me, soft, sweaty and translucent onions, as well as rich and dark caramelised ones, offer the greatest rewards. It’s hard to believe that with just a little time and attention, something so cheap can be turned into something so special. And that’s just what caramelization does. Watching a pile of pearl-white slices almost dissolve into glossy richness is one of cooking’s great transformations. Sweating them slowly in a little oil and/or butter turns their natural sugars into a sweet, lip-smacking meatiness that is surprisingly luxurious for such a humble vegetable.

It’s also the foundation for some classic dishes, the best known, perhaps, being French onion soup. One of my recipes this week is for a meaty version inspired by the first celebrity chef – the great Alexis Soyer, who took a sabbatical from his groundbreaking work at London’s Reform Club to come to Ireland and set up a soup kitchen during the great Famine of the 1840s. His famine soup, with barley, a snippet of beef and, of course, onions, stopped thousands of Irish from going hungry. The small amount of meat in his original recipe gave body to what was essentially a broth.

I followed the same principle here, using a bit more beef to enhance the meatiness of the onions, and it worked well. The little crouton cap with oozing Gruyère cheese is a help, mind you.

The second recipe also features caramelised onions. This time they’re partnered with black beans and set to rest on a soft, rich mash of creamy celeriac. Easy and quick to prepare, this is the perfect midweek veggie supper.

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