If there is one vegetable that can level up your BBQ game, it’s the onion! Onions add that extra layer of oomph to any meal. Several recipes often use “caramelize” and “sauté” in their instructions, but what exactly is the difference?
Different onion cooking methods and techniques produce unique tastes and textures. For example, caramelized onions are cooked at low heat for an extended time resulting in the sugars in the onions breaking down, while sautéed onions are fried at high heat for a short time.
So which one is best for you? Both caramelized onions and sautéed onions bring something unique to the table. As we discuss the differences between the two, knowing when to use which will become clear.
Caramelized Vs. Sautéed Onions: What’s The Difference?
While the two terms are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. There are several differences between caramelized onions and sautéed onions.
Caramelized Onions Vs. Sautéed Onions: Technique
The most significant difference between caramelized and sautéed onions is the technique used to cook the onions.
Caramelizing is a cooking technique that uses the chemical process of pyrolysis to break the sugars in the onions down, transforming the flavor and color of the onions.
It is best to use a non-stick pan or cast-iron skillet for caramelizing. Onions are usually cut in even slices of half circles, no less than a quarter-inch in thickness. However, be careful not to slice the onion too thin to prevent the onions from burning.
Butter or oil is essential for caramelizing onions as it coats the onions and speeds up the caramelization process. About three tablespoons of butter will be sufficient for a large pan.
The onions need to be stirred every few minutes, but not too often. Near the end of the caramelization process, the onions might burn and need to be stirred more frequently. Deglazing the pan with balsamic vinegar helps prevent the onions from sticking to the pan and adds extra flavor.
Sautéing is a cooking technique where the onions are fried and browned on high heat with little oil. Non-stick pans work best.
As the heat is high and the oil minimum, it is crucial to stir the onions constantly to prevent them from burning or sticking to the pan.
Caramelized Onions Vs. Sautéed Onions: Heat
In addition to using different cooking techniques, the temperature at which each is cooked differs.
When caramelizing onions, cooking starts on medium-high heat to heat the pan and melt the butter. Once the onions start to brown, the heat is lowered, and the onions are cooked on low heat until they caramelize.
Onions are sautéed on medium-high or high heat until the onions are done. The heat stays consistent throughout the entire process.
Caramelized Onions Vs. Sautéed Onions: Time
One of the most significant differences is the time it takes to caramelize or sauté onions. How much time you have to your disposable will also decide how you choose to prepare your onions.
For sugar to caramelize, it needs to be exposed to heat for long enough for the sugars to decompose. As onions do not contain as much sugar as fruits or other vegetables, it may take longer to reach pyrolysis.
The secret to perfect caramelized onions is “slow and low.” You will need to cook the onions for about 45 minutes, sometimes up to an hour.
Sautéing onions does not take long. However, as the heat is higher and the onions do not need to cook all the way through, it will take between 5 to 10 minutes, depending on your personal preference.
Caramelized Onions Vs. Sautéed Onions: Taste
So the cooking time, heat, and technique between caramelized onions and sautéed onions are all different. So how do they compare in taste?
Due to the sugar having decomposed, caramelized onions have a distinctly sweeter taste than sautéed and are more flavorful. It has a depth in flavor and richness like no other.
While sautéed onions are much sweeter than raw onions, they are not heated long enough for all the sugars to break down and retain the sharp oniony taste. Therefore, you could say that sautéed onions taste between raw onions and caramelized onions.
Caramelized Onions Vs. Sautéed Onions: Texture
The texture of certain foods, especially onions, can be off-putting for some. Much like the taste, it is very personal. Unsurprisingly, the texture of caramelized onions is unlike that of sautéed onions.
As caramelized onions are cooked for so long, they become very soft and mushy. However, the texture is smooth and melty.
Sautéed onions are also soft but not nearly as soft as caramelized onions. Instead, sautéed onions have a crisp texture. While not as crunchy as raw onions, it is slightly crunchy and chewy.
Which Onion Is Best For Caramelizing?
All onions contain sugar; thus, any onion will caramelize, but what is the best onion for caramelizing?
Each type of onion has its unique taste and, thus, will bring a slightly different result. The most common onions used for caramelizing are yellow, white, and red.
Yellow onions are versatile, caramelize relatively fast, and are a pantry staple for most. So it is no surprise that yellow onions are the most frequently used.
However, red onions contain the most sugar. So while red onions are smaller and slightly more expensive, they make wonderfully rich, deeply flavorful caramelized onions.
How Do You Tell If Onions Are Caramelized?
If you have never caramelized onions before, you may be unsure how to tell when it is ready. There are two simple ways to know when caramelized onions are ready; taste and color.
Of course, tasting is always fun! Taste is very personal and will differ from one person to the next. Caramelized onions usually hit the sweet spot at about 40 minutes and get even sweeter the longer you cook them.
You can easily taste the difference between cooked and burned, and once the onions are sweet enough for your preference, you can remove them from the heat.
The other way to tell if onions have caramelized is to look at the color. When you cook, the onions turn from clear (if using white or yellow onions) to yellowish golden. As the sugar in the onions breaks down, the color will darken, turning from golden brown to a dark reddish-brown. The darker the color, the sweeter the onions.
How Do You Sauté Onions Without Burning Them?
It can be challenging to sauté onions without burning them. The onions burn quickly because the heat is high and you don’t use a lot of oil or butter.
Using a non-stick pan helps prevent the onions from burning to the pan, but the key to preventing them from burning is to move the onions constantly. By stirring or tossing them continuously, you prevent them from being on the surface of the hot pan long enough to burn.
Ultimately, the method you choose to cook your onions will be determined by the amount of time you have available or are prepared to spend and your desired taste.
Both caramelized onions and sautéed onions are equally delicious in their own right and are wonderful additions to a BBQ.
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