Sauteeing Onions

The sauteeing of onions is one of the most basic, initial acts of preparing a meal. Its like the opening of a chess game. There’s a familiar comfort, like setting out on the same road when you leave to travel. There aren’t a lot of variations, though there are some.

Perhaps the most evocative, and also informative discussion of the onion comes in Michael Ruhlman’s Twenty – as the onion is profiled as one of the essential 20 areas of kitchen techniques.

I think all of us in the west are used to the basic routine: heat a little oil in a pan, drop in your onions, and after a few minutes they begin to sweat out their water, and become translucent. But yesterday I was looking at a blog covering (in part only) Ethiopean cuisine – by and with an American audience in mind: The Berbere Diaries which offers the Ethiopean perspective on the sauteeing of onions. In her “Adventures in cooking, part 1” post she describes how, instead, the onions are initially cooked dry – no oil – and after they are soft  – about 5-7 minutes on medium heat, then the oil is added.

Fascinating, I thought. I wonder why – or more specifically I wondered what the difference is. So last night I tried this method – and I should say it worked fine. But I was still wondering what difference it makes. So I devised and did a little experiment this morning at breakfast. I decided I would cook up some onions and eggs for my breakfast the next morning  – in two separate pans. I wanted the method to be the only variable here. I would use one onion, have both pans (both cast iron, both same thickness) at the same temperature on the same sized burners, cooked for the same amount of time, the same amount of olive oil, with the same amounts of salt and pepper added at the same times.

Here is my mise-en-place:

Mise-en-place 6:12 AM

Mise-en-place 6:12 AM

Next, onions cut, burners turned on medium heat (6:20 AM), oil in the one pan on the right. (6:21 AM)

Sauteeing onions (2)   Sauteeing onions (3)

Now the onions are added to both pans once they are hot. (6:24) A sprinkle of salt and pepper on each. After being cooked a few minutes, the pan heated ones are already darker.

Sauteeing onions (4)



At 6:28 I added oil to the pan heated onions. What is quickly evident is that the traditionally sauteed onions (oil in first) absorb a lot more of the oil than the pan heated ones.

Sauteeing onions (7)


By 6:33 the eggs are added and cooked, and breakfast is plated. The pan-heated-first onions are on the right, the traditionally sauteed ones are on the left. The pan heated ones are darker, also less voluminous (the same amount of onion was in each pan). The eggs reveal that I wasn’t able to be precise enough with the heat application- – the right side clearly cooked more than the left.

Sauteeing onions (8)

And now the taste:

  • The difference in taste is perceptible, but subtle.
  • The traditionally sauteed onions are somewhat oilier – but not a lot
  • The pan heated ones are more intense and complex in their flavour – they tend to be sweeter, but also a little richer.
  • The traditionally sauteed onions tended to have the salt shine through more. They were meatier,  – the carbs had not changed to sugars as much as with the pan heated variation.

Some final conclusions:

I’m really pleased to have learned this alternate way of sauteeing onions. Its another tool in the technique tool bag. I can see using it where I want a more sweet and complex flavour, but I also do not see forsaking the ‘traditional’ method either.

Happy playing in your kitchen, everyone!


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