I love onions, but I also hate them because people cook them badly.
I find biting into anything and pulling out a long string of onion very upsetting. Or getting an unexpectedly crunchy and spicy onion. Ew. For an ingredient that is nearly universal, there’s a lot of bad onions out there. I have some rules for myself when I cook onions.
- Cook onions most of the way before adding anything else. Onions are often the flavor base to a dish, and so they’re often the first thing added to the pan. How you cook them here makes a huge difference for how they end up in the final product because of how much water they hold. If you cook onions down nicely before you add other aromatics (garlic, peppers, ginger, etc.) they have the chance to loose that water without picking any up from the other ingredients in the pan. This sets the texture of the onions and ensures that they don’t retain any weirdly incongruous crunch.
- Just because the recipe doesn’t tell you to caramelize doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. A corollary to the above point, onions usually taste better the longer they’re cooked because they flavor becomes more mild and sweet. You don’t want to blacken your onions, but if you have the time to let the sugars in them cook slowly, you’ll be rewarded with a rich onion flavor always.
- There is a right direction to cut onions, just like proteins. Onions have vessels running along their length that become stringy when they get old. If you slice onions root to sprout, rather than across the layers, these strings end up in your final product and introduce an unpleasant texture that can make it hard to bite into one.
- You can serve onions (mostly) raw if you prep them first. A quick (~10 min) dip in a mixture of water and vinegar will take away the bite and make raw white or red onions a delicious addition to salads and sandwiches.
Go forth and onion.