How to Saute Onions + Caramelize Onions (for the BEST Flavor!)

This complete guide on how to saute or caramelize onions perfectly is such a life saver! This tutorial shows you the tricks and technique for the best sauteed onions recipe EVER! 

Caramelized onions lend the perfect hint of savory sweetness to so many dishes. For example, this French Onion Chicken or French Onion Soup. They also add loads of flavor to steaks, burgers and more! 

And while caramelizing onions isn’t a difficult process, it does take a bit of time and a little patience. Think 45-minutes total. Or… try your hand at making sauteed onions, which will only take about 10-minutes! 

First thing’s first…

🧅 What’s the Difference Between Sauteed Onions and Caramelized Onions? 

The main difference between sauteed onions and caramelized onions is the cooking time. Caramelized onions are cooked at a lower temperature, for a longer period of time, resulting in super sweet, tender onions. This is my favorite way of making onions if I have the time.

Sauteed onions are cooked more quickly, and at a higher heat, resulting in browned onions that are soft inside, but not caramelized and still with a bit of an “onion bite.” If you don’t have much time – this is the way to go!

👩‍🍳 Ingredients 

You only need a handful of simple ingredients to make sauteed onions:

  • Onions – You can use yellow onions, sweet onions, white onions or red onions for this recipe.
  • Olive Oil + Butter – I like to sautee my onions in a combination of half olive oil and half butter. But you can use all oil or all butter if you’d prefer. 
  • Salt + Sugar – I sprinkle in a teaspoon of sugar to help the onion caramelization process. You may want to add more or less depending on how sweet your onions are. Brown sugar also works.
  • Balsamic Vinegar – A splash of balsamic at the end is totally optional, but it adds a rich flavor and a bit of tang. It also gives the onions a beautiful color. 

🔪 How to Cut Onions for Sauteeing and Caramelizing

  • Slice the ends off of the onion. 
  • Slice the onion in half. 
  • Place the onion flat slice down and slice to about ¼” thickness, parallel with the cut ends. 

Instructions 

To Make Sauteed Onions

  • Heat a large skillet on medium-high heat. Add the oil and butter. Once melted, add the onion slices and arrange evenly in the pan. 
  • Sprinkle the onions with the sugar and a pinch of salt and cook for about 10 minutes. 
  • Once the onions tender, and turning golden, add a splash of balsamic (if desired) and season with a bit more salt, to taste. 

To Make Caramelized Onions 

  • Heat a large skillet on medium heat. Add the oil and butter. Once melted, add the sliced onions and arrange evenly in the pan. 
  • Reduce to medium-low heat and cook the onions for about 10 minutes. 
  • Sprinkle the onions with the sugar and a pinch of salt. 
  • Continue cooking the onions for 30-minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally. You may want to lower the heat if the onions are browning too much. You can also add a splash of water to loosen things up. 
  • Once the onions are a rich, brown color, add a splash of balsamic (if desired) and season with a bit more salt, to taste. 

Tips & Variations

  • Pan Type: I like to use a heavy cast iron skillet for cooking, since they tend to heat more evenly. However, any large saute pan will work.
  • If Your Onions are Browning Too Quickly: Try reducing the heat and adding in a couple tablespoons of water. Low and slow is what we’re going for.
  • Deglazing: At the end of the cooking process, you can deglaze the pan with a splash of wine, broth or beer (especially delicious on top of grilled sausages).
  • Herbs & Seasonings: Try adding in a little Italian Seasoning, garlic salt, or thyme to your onions.

FAQ

How long do onions take to saute?

You can sautee onions quickly in just about 10-minutes. Cook them over medium-high heat with a bit of oil and/or butter until they become golden and tender.

How long do you caramelize onions?

It takes around 45-minutes to caramelize onions. This is because the onions need to slowly reach a certain temperature so that they can release their natural sugars and begin to caramelized.

How often should you stir caramelized onions?

Plan on stirring your onions every 5-6 minutes with a wooden spoon, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan.

Can you stir caramelized onions too much?

Yes. You don’t want to stir the onions too much. Let them cook down without moving them, so that they can become golden, then, once they are sticking to the pan a bit, give them a stir.

Do you add sugar to caramelize onions?

I like to add in a sprinkle of sugar to help the caramelization process and to add extra sweetness to my onions. This is optional though!

Do you add salt when caramelizing onions?

I add just a pinch of salt once the onions start to soften. Then, I wait until the onions are fully cooked to season again. Because the onions will shrink down so much, you don’t want to over season at the beginning.

Does baking soda help caramelize onions?

This post by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt suggests that sprinkling your onions with a bit of baking soda can help the onions caramelize quicker. It’s all about the Maillard Reaction. He suggests adding no more than 1/4 teaspoon per pound of onions.

Why won’t my onions caramelize?

If your onions won’t caramelize, they may have been cut too thin or too thick. Aim for slices that are about 1/2″ thick. Another reason is that you may just need to give them a bit more time. Caramelizing onions takes at least 30 minutes of cooking, in order for the sugar in the onions to break down and develop a nice golden brown color.

What is the best onion to saute?

You can saute any type of onion you prefer! Red, white, yellow, even green onions work. For caramelized onions, sweet onions and yellow onions work best.

Do you need butter to caramelize onions?

While I find that butter adds a richness to caramelized onions, you do not need to use butter. Feel free to use just oil. Or, see below for how to cook onions without oil or butter.

How do you sauté without butter or oil?

If you would prefer to not use butter or oil when sauteeing, I would suggest using a nonstick pan. Also, during the cooking process, you may find it necessary to add a splash of water to loosen things up.

Do you saute onions with the lid on or off?

You want to sautee your onions with the lid off so that the liquids can evaporate and browning and caramelization can occur. If the lid was on, the onions would steam, and not become browned.

Extreme close up of caramelized sauteed onions.

How to Store

Cooked onions will keep in the fridge for up to 5 days. Store them in an airtight container in the fridge. Or, package them into a ziploc bag and squeeze as much air out as possible. They can also be frozen this way for up to three months.

How to Reheat

Reheat the onions in a microwave or in a skillet over low heat, with a splash of water, until warmed through. 

🍴 Serving Suggestions

Spoon in bowl of caramelized onions.

Did you make this caramelized onion recipe?

Please leave a comment and rating below, if you loved this recipe. Also, be sure to snap a picture of your finished dish and share it with me on Instagram using the hashtag #platingsandpairings and tagging me @platingsandpairings.

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PS – If you loved this recipe, you may also enjoy these Quick Pickled Onions!

Overhead shot of sauteed onions in white bowl with spoon.

Sauteed Onions Recipe

This complete guide on how to saute or caramelize onions perfectly is such a life saver! This tutorial shows you the tricks and technique for the best sauteed onions recipe EVER! 
5 from 1 vote
Print Pin
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 15 minutes
Servings: 4 people

Ingredients

  • 4 medium onions (sliced 1/4" thick (sweet, yellow, white, or red))
  • 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar (optional)

Instructions

To Make Caramelized Onions:

  • Heat a large skillet on medium heat. Add the oil and butter. Once melted, add the onions and arrange evenly in the pan.
  • Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the onions for about 10 minutes.
  • Sprinkle the onions with the sugar and a pinch of salt.
  • Continue cooking the onions for 30-minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally. You may want to lower the heat if the onions are browning too much. You can also add a splash of water to loosen things up.
  • Once the onions are a rich, brown color, add the balsamic vinegar (if desired) and season with a bit more salt, to taste.

To Make Sauteed Onions:

  • Heat a large skillet on medium heat. Add the oil and butter. Once melted, add the onions and arrange evenly in the pan.
  • Cook the onions for about 10-minutes until tender and becoming golden.
  • Add the balsamic (if desired) and season with a bit more salt, to taste.

Notes

How to Store Sauteed Onions

Cooked onions will keep in the fridge for up to 5 days. Store them in an airtight container in the fridge. Or, package them into a ziploc bag and squeeze as much air out as possible. They can also be frozen this way for up to three months.

How to Reheat Sauteed Onions

Reheat the onions in a microwave or in a skillet over low heat, with a splash of water, until warmed through. 
Did you make this recipe?Mention @platingsandpairings or tag #platingsandpairings!

Equipment

Knife
Large Skillet

Nutrition

Calories: 107kcal | Carbohydrates: 12g | Protein: 1g | Fat: 6g | Saturated Fat: 2g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.5g | Monounsaturated Fat: 3g | Trans Fat: 0.1g | Cholesterol: 8mg | Sodium: 28mg | Potassium: 166mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 6g | Vitamin A: 90IU | Vitamin C: 8mg | Calcium: 27mg | Iron: 0.3mg

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