Cooking Basics: Onions

This post is so simple it’s almost embarassing. The reason I’m sharing this though is because the steps involved form the basis of many (if not all) of my recipes for main courses and side vegetables.

I learnt these steps in stages over many, many years (decades even, shhh). If you don’t really know how to cook, mastering these few steps could translate to creating hundreds (yes, 100’s!) of dishes.* 

* Theory has not been tested

Onions, garlic and ginger are the Holy Trinity when it comes to flavour. You can use one, two or all of these together depending on the recipe and your preferences.

Chop, Chop

Whether you cut thin slices or thick chunks depends on preference. I find it easier to chop thin slices with a small, sharp paring knife (the Fördubbla from Ikea is surprisingly good for how inexpensive it is).

Thin slices release more flavour. Thick slices add more texture, like having an extra vegetable.

Don’t cry for me Argentina…

There are many claims on how to prevent a full-on sob fest while chopping onions. They all have some merit. Here are a few I’ve tried:

  • Breathe through your mouth and not your nose while chopping. This isn’t the easiest thing to do when you can’t use one hand to pinch your nose so you’ll have to work fast!
  • Avoid the core of the onion. Chop around the sides and throw the middle in the compost bin. This is wasteful but effective.
  • Keep a bowl of water on the counter nearby. I think this is to absorb the smell and find it useful only if used along with one of the above two tips.

Fry Me to the Moon

Can you spot the (slight) difference?

Often in recipes, you’ll be told to “sautee onions until they are golden” with no further explanation. I used to aim for a golden brown until I watched a video series a few years ago called ‘Making Healthy Food Taste Great’ from The Great Courses. It turns out that I was effectively burning the onions. Although I quite liked the taste – and really isn’t that the point? – the flavour did overpower every dish.

So how do you do it right? First, cover the base of your pot/pan/wok with your oil of choice. This is important so that your onions don’t stick to the bottom and burn. The stovetop heat should be on medium-high.

Add a tiny piece of onion and once it starts to sizzle slightly, add the rest of your chopped onions. Stir until the pieces turn slightly transparent. The ‘golden’ is from the fibres absorbing the oil. It’s quite subtle and takes less than two minutes.

Now you’re ready to add everything else.

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