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I can caramelize onions, garlic, and ginger over 30 minutes, stir frying.

But this requires me to stand in front of the stove for 30 minutes. Instead, I prefer to spend 90 minutes, adding a bit of water and a touch of oil, then letting them simmer, with the onions taking half the time alone before the others are added. I can then do something else during that time.

ultra slow caramelization of onions

Does this process have a name? Does it still qualify as caramelization? Would a self-respecting chef do this once a week with larger quantities and freeze small containers with the mixture for use throughout the week?

Update

I say the following only half in jest. Since Tetsujin slapped the entirely derogatory "fairgrounds" term on boiled-down onions, I'm wondering whether I can elevate this method ever so slightly by giving it another term, and a French one at that.

Isn't boiling down onions exactly how you make French onion soup?

Update 2

Correction to self: as pointed out by Preston in the comments, French onion soup is caramelized onions plus (beef, usually) stock. The description above is my past-years attempt at reducing the time I spend preparing F.O.S., and it stuck in my mind as a correct method.

Well, now I know why I complained about onion soup tasting with overwhelming onions. It's because I multiplied the quantity of onions in an attempt to avoid the caramelization step.

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  • Just a note to say that I don’t think boiling onions is the typical preparation for French Onion Soup. For that, you typically caramelize a whole bunch of onions and then later add broth. – Preston Jan 31 at 21:16
  • I'm not really being derogatory about fairground onions. They're great on hot dogs. They're the thing that draws you towards the hot dog stand. You can't really smell hot dogs, but you sure can smell fairground onions from a mile away ;)) That's precisely how I make onions at home for hot dogs, A quick fry to get a bit of browning - oil, water, lid, simmer until the water dissipates, then a quick flash at the end to get some more colour in. It's not how I'd start a curry, or onion soup, though. – Tetsujin Feb 1 at 10:26
  • @Tetsujin It is perhaps a compromise. An optimization does need 30 minutes of stirring. You also suggest that it's possible to not spend 30 minutes just on the caramelization by dropping down the temperature a little so that they don't burn quite so quickly when you turn your back to do the second dish (or get some other work done). I'm trying to find out how to push this to the limit, and leave the room entirely. The end dish may be different, but some cooking styles—Chinese stir-fry in particular, keeps the onions wholly intact, and just give them a quick whisk at very high heat. – Sam Feb 1 at 13:38
  • @Tetsujin Might going in this opposite direction (higher heat, lower overall time) be another alternative. Perhaps the curry won't end up being Haute Cuisine, but would it be palatable? – Sam Feb 1 at 13:39
  • Flash-frying onions gets you maillard, not caramelisation. You can't really short-cut it & arrive at the same result. – Tetsujin Feb 1 at 17:02
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Often, cooking onions over low heat so they turn translucent without browning would be sweating as was already mentioned, but the name would technically mean cooking them until they gave up their liquid.

With a little bit of water in the pan, and the lid on, I'd be inclined to call it steaming, but if you then cooked it without the lid some to get rid of the liquid (like a steam-sauté technique, but at lower heat), I'd just consider it a shortcut to sweating, as this is also one of the many shortcuts that some people suggest for caramelizing.

If there were more than just a touch of water (as it looks to be in your image), then I might consider it to be braising. It would need to be completely submerged to be boiling.

But that's just the initial stages of it before they take color, if you're cooking them all the way to brown, it's still caramelizing, just not using the 'classic' technique.

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  • All are ideas well worth experiments, with the final objective of caramelizing with reduced attention to the process. – Sam Feb 4 at 19:30
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Without the water, I'd call it 'sweating'.
With the water & lid, they're going to come out a bit like like fairground hotdog onions… not really like caramelised.

Fine for Spanish Tortilla (or hot dogs), not so great if you need that Maillard-like reaction.

If you don't use the water, or the lid, you can slowly caramelise onions with little supervision, but not none.
Check them every 10-15 mins at 'too slow to burn' pan temperatures, with plenty of oil. This is another one of those "work it out by repetition based on your stove heat & your pan thickness" things that might take you a few tries to get just right.
After that you can do it every time.

You can also cheat a bit (it's a fake & doesn't taste quite the same…)
Sweat at minimal heat, like for tortilla, for half an hour, then push up the heat a fair bit once you're there to supervise & quickly brown the already soft onions by keeping them moving constantly.
That's still a bit 'fairground' but a reasonable cheat.

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  • Very reasonable comments. I'll have to run a back-to-back taste test to determine just how bad the "fairgrounds" (lol) taste is like compared to caramelization. Nice third idea for onions. I use it frequently (perogies, etc). Two issues, both health related: 1- I'm not sure that the Maillard-reaction is healthy to use seven days a week. Some pointers online suggest it isn't. 2- The need for "plenty of oil" is problematic. Extra oil (or worse, butter) makes it so easy to improve flavor for _every_thing. The challenge is to make do with a minimum of fat. – Sam Jan 31 at 19:28
  • You can do it with less oil, but you need more stirring. It's an either/or. They'll dry out, & not in a good way, with not enough of both. I'm afraid I can't contribute to the 'is it good for me?' club on either maillard or caramelisation. You can eat boiled tofu if you want bland :P – Tetsujin Jan 31 at 19:38
  • I doubt I'll find a better answer than the one you wrote, but let me wait until another authority materializes and gives me their blessing to use this method or a variant, at least some of the time. – Sam Jan 31 at 19:44
  • Of course. Never rush into accepting (though you can always change your mind). Leave it a day or two to see if someone comes up with something better. I'm not in desperate need of the points ;) – Tetsujin Jan 31 at 19:46
  • You can (even should) strain off the extra oil at the end, so it probably doesn't affect the fat in the final product very much at all – Chris H Feb 1 at 12:18

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