How to Sauté Onions

Sautéing onions concentrates their natural sugars so they take on a glorious sweetness as the onions soften. Cook them longer, and they eventually caramelize into a golden brown. When you know how to sauté onions to bring out that natural sweetness, you'll add them to your cooking more often—not just when you sauté peppers and onions or other combinations that mask onion flavor. Make your sautéed onions stand out.

Sauted onions add delicious, mellow flavor to lots of recipes. We'll show you how to chop an onion and how to saute onions so that they're tender translucent, and ready to go into your favorite recipes.

Sauteing onions simply means to cook them in a pan with butter, oil, or other fat until the onions are tender. This cooking method is super flexible -- it doesn't matter what kind of onions you use or how you cut them. Some recipes call for cooking the onions until tender but not brown, while others continue cooking until caramelized or golden. We'll show you how to do both, as well as offer pointers on purchasing onions, ways to cut them, and how to use sauteed onions.

How to Sauté Onions

In a large skillet or pan heat oil or butter over medium-high heat until hot. Use about 1 tablespoon fat per onion. Add chopped or sliced onions (see below for techniques to cut onions) and cook for 5 to 7 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula. That's how long to sauté onions to remove the harsh onion flavor and just barely start to sweeten the cooking onion. If desired, cook a little longer until edges just start to brown to bring more sweetness. Remove from heat and use as desired.

Tip: The onions will cook more evenly if you don't crowd them. Stir the onions frequently and keep an eye on the heat. If the heat is too high, the onions can burn.

Easy Ways to Use Sautéed Onions:

  • Burger Topper: Top burgers or panini sandwiches with sautéed or caramelized sliced onions.
  • Potato Bar: Add sautéed sliced or chopped onions to your potato-bar toppings.
  • Omelet Filling: Tuck caramelized chopped onions inside an omelet along with blue cheese and chopped pear, or try shredded Swiss cheese and chopped ham.
  • Side Dish: Stir fresh spinach into a pan of sautéed onions and cook just until the spinach wilts. Season with salt and ground black pepper.
  • Appetizer: Spread toasted French bread slices with goat cheese and top with caramelized onions and a sprinkle of snipped fresh thyme.

How to Caramelize Onions

Cooking onions longer at a lower heat results in onions that are soft and golden brown. This breaks down the natural sugars so the onions taste extra sweet. We recommend using butter for the best flavor.

  • Thinly slice 2 onions. Sweet onions, such as Vidalia or Walla Walla, are preferable, but any kind of onions will work.
  • In a large skillet melt 2 tablespoons butter over medium-low heat. Add the onions. Cook, covered, for 13 to 15 minutes or until the onions are tender, stirring occasionally. Uncover the skillet; cook and stir over medium-high heat for 3 to 5 minutes more or until onions are golden.

Purchasing and Storing Onions

Before you sauté an onion, be sure you're starting with a good quality product and prepping it correctly. Use these onion pointers to get started:

  • Choose onions that are firm, heavy for their size, and free of blemishes and soft spots. Avoid those that are starting to sprout.
  • 1 small onion = 1/3 cup chopped; 1 medium onion = 1/2 cup chopped; 1 large onion = 1 cup chopped
  • Store onions loosely in a container in a cool, dry, well-ventilated place, preferably not the refrigerator. Fall and winter onions store longer (several weeks) than the more delicate and sweeter spring and summer onions.

How to Chop and Slice Onions

Rinse the onion thoroughly under cool tap water. On a cutting surface, use a chef's knife to slice off the stem and root ends. Remove the papery outer skins and cut the onion in half from the top end to the root end.

To Chop: Place each onion half, flat side down, on the cutting surface and make side-by-side vertical slices from stem end to root end. Holding slices together, cut across the slices, making tiny pieces.

To Slice: Place a peeled onion on its side on a cutting surface and use a chef's knife to cut it crosswise, making slices as thin as desired. Discard the top and root slices.

To Slice into Wedges: On a cutting surface, cut the peeled onion in half from stem to root end. Place the flat side of a half down and cut from end to end, angling toward the center to make desired-size wedges.

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