Onion jam, or: That time we bought all the onions

Okay, that title sounds kind of dire.  I’m sorry.  This post is actually the opposite of dire.  It’s a post full of SOLUTIONS!  And the cleaning out of one’s pantry.  As I type, there is a pan of carrots roasting away in the oven.  Until about an hour ago they comprised what was left of a 5-pound bag we had bought a couple of weeks ago, slowly working through with a batch of ribollita here, chickpea tomato stew there, carrot sticks for munching, etc.  When Danny first brought the big bag home (per my own directions – because the 5lb bag in my head was actually just the 2lb bag in reality… oops), I noted that we had our work cut out for us.  But it turns out it’s not actually that big a deal with hardy things like carrots.

And onions.

On another shopping trip, we brought home a bag of yellow onions because, you know, who doesn’t need an onion?  They are the workhorses of our (and really any) kitchen and like carrots, they love to lounge for eons. 

Good thing they weren’t in any hurry.  Turns out I had that same thought a week earlier.

So we found ourselves with TWO bags full of onions.  (And here I think of the Count from Sesame Street.  “One, two – TWO bags of onions, ah-hah-ahhhhh!”)  We got through the first one rather gallantly and without issue.  But the second one.  Oh lordy, that second bag of onions.  It was like they were reproducing right there on the countertop!  I put onion in things that didn’t necessarily need it.  We sliced one raw for sandwiches.  (Not a normal move for weekday lunches, really.)  I would have made a couple gallons of vegetable stock with them if we had anything else lying around for as long as we hosted those poor onions.

Finally, yesterday, while composing the grocery list, Danny suggested that we kill off the rest of the onions.

“Well yes,” I said, “that would be nice. But in what?  Do you see how many onions we have??”

“Shit, just slice ’em up and caramelize them.  I’ll put them in sandwiches this week, they’ll be good on chicken or with greens…”

Dang.  He’s good.

Such a simple solution.  Love that guy.

So today’s lesson, kids, is Caramelizing for Real:  How to Blow Through A Whole Lot of Onions.

It’s a stupid-easy process if you have the following three things:

  1. A mandoline (hey remember that?) (Didja get it yet?)
  2. A lot of time
  3. A lot of patience
  4. Okay I lied:  a large saute pan

It also goes without saying, probably (I hope?), that you’ll need a boatload of onions.  I used about nine smallish ones, but if you’ve got big guys, maybe four or five would work.  Of course, you could use fewer, but I promise you, you’ll end up with a wodge of cooked onions the size of a pine cone, which is a yield I don’t feel is worth the patience that goes into it.

A side note: this patience thing?  It really just means:  STOP MESSING WITH IT.  Don’t touch it.  Leave it alone.  Let it find its way.  The onions will always come through for you.  If you love something (onions), let it (them) go.

See?  Wisdom for living is wisdom for cooking. 

So let’s get to it.  I’ll give you a list of the myriad applications for caramelized onions after the (barely even a) recipe.

Get this:

  • A whole bunch of onions
  • Olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Do this:

Cut your onions in half, leaving the root side intact.  Take off the outer skins, etc, as if you were just going to chop them into half-moons.  Which you’re pretty much about to do.

Set the thickness of your mandoline to not-wafer-thin.  To an extent it’s up to you, but unless you want more of an onion jam (which there is really nothing wrong with wanting), I’d recommend a slightly more substantial setting.
Now get your pan hot.  Not screaming, rip-snorting, but pretty hot.  Give it a squirt of olive oil – a couple of teaspoons should do it – roll it around, and dump your onions in. 
This should provide that profoundly satisfying searing sound which we all know and love so well.  Add a pinch of salt and several grinds of black pepper.  Let the onions cook for a minute there, then flip or stir them once to brown (and I mean brown) on the other side. 
Once the onions are about half-brown and half translucent, then you can slow the heat down to a medium-low.  If it seems dry in there, give the pan another small bit of oil, but remember you’re not frying them, so be judicious.  Give them another flip and make sure they are relatively evenly distributed over the pan. 
Now walk away.
Do other stuff.
Don’t you have laundry to do?
Didn’t you just buy yourself some new tea you’ve been wanting to try?
Don’t you still have to take down that (now very dry) evergreen garland over the living room window that you stripped of ornaments after Christmas to make it look “just wintery”?
(If you live at our house, the answer to all of these questions is yes.)
In the time it takes to gather and throw in one load of laundry, and unload and fold the dry load, your onions will be ready to stir.  Unless you are very persnickety about your folding.  In which case, I’d check the onions before you start that part.
So stir them once, thoroughly, then distribute them evenly again.  You’ll see that your onions are burnished, not burnt.  It’s a good thing.  Go back to your laundry.  Or if you just can’t help yourself and you are dead set on witnessing this magic happen, then fine.  I can’t stop you.  But keep your hands to yourself.
When you return again to your pan after the amount of time we just discussed, you will notice that Something Magical has happened.  Your onions have turned delightfully sludgy.  Not totally smooshed, just gooey. 

You did it!  You caramelized a crap-ton of onions.  Now you can put them on/in whatever you want:

  • Mix them into some pasta and dress with olive oil and pecorino
  • Mix them into some decadent mac & cheese (actually, I do have a post for that…)
  • Stir into mushroom soup
  • Put in a grilled cheese sandwich
  • Slather on bread in whatever sandwich you’re making (Danny just stuffed some of these into a sandwich with Virginia ham and stoneground mustard)
  • Spread onto crostini, top with any sort of blue cheese, and throw under the broiler for a minute
  • Spoon on top of steak, chicken, maybe even salmon
  • Add to roasted potatoes
  • Stir into eggs with fresh herbs and scramble
  • Layer them into your favorite Peasant Breakfast combo

I think you get the picture.  I could go on, but I’d only insult your creativity.  Jar these up and smile.


  1. When I do this I freeze them in individual portions. Just take a cookie sheet, make piles of onions on it (like cookies!) And stick it I'm the freezer for a couple hours. When they are frozen transfer the little onion pucks into a gallon bag or Tupperware container. Long lasting!

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