How to Sauté Onions in About 5 Minutes

Learn how to sauté onions to bring out their natural sweetness and you'll start adding them to your cooking much more often.

Sautéing onions simply means cooking them in a pan with butter, oil, or another fat until the onions are tender. This easy cooking method is super flexible—there is no best type of onion to sauté or ideal-size pieces. You can use any kind of onion and any cut. 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 and offer helpful pointers on purchasing onions to sauté, ways to cut them, and how to use sautéed onions.

cut onions on cutting board with kitchen knife

BHG / Andrea Araiza

How to Sauté Onions

Heat oil or butter over medium-high heat until hot in a large skillet or pan. Use about 1 Tbsp. fat per small to medium onion (you can use just about any fat). If you want to sauté onions without oil, use a nonstick pan, and add a small amount of water or vegetable broth to help keep onions from sticking.

Add chopped or sliced 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 begin to brown to bring more sweetness. Remove from heat and use as desired.

The process for sautéing onions and peppers is pretty similar. To make sure both veggies finish cooking simultaneously, cut your onions and peppers into similar-size pieces. Then follow the instructions above and cook the onions and peppers together in oil until both are tender (it should take closer to 7 minutes).

Test Kitchen 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

Now that you know how to sauté them add your cooked onions to all kinds of recipes. Here are ideas to get you started.

  • 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 onions inside an omelet 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 sautéed onions and a sprinkle of snipped fresh thyme.
hand placing sliced onion into saute pan
Blaine Moats

How to Caramelize Onions

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

  • Thinly slice two onions. Sweet onions, such as Vidalia or Walla Walla, are preferable, but any kind of onion will work.
  • In a large skillet, melt 2 Tbsp. 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.
stirring caramelized onion with spoon
Blaine Moats

Purchasing and Storing Onions

Before you sauté an onion, start with a good-quality product and prep 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 = ⅓ cup chopped; 1 medium onion = ½ 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. Use a chef's knife to slice off the stem and root ends on a cutting surface. Remove the papery outer skins and cut the onion in half from the top end to the root end.

Buy It: Wüsthof Gourmet Chef's Knife ($100, Williams Sonoma)

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. Then, holding the slices together, cut across them to make tiny pieces. If you're looking to speed up the process, this is the best way to sauté onions because the small pieces will cook more quickly than larger slices.

using a chef knife to cut onion wedges
Scott Little

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

Cut the peeled onion in half from stem to root end on a cutting surface. Place the flat side of a half down and cut from end to end, angling toward the center to make desired-size wedges.

No matter how you slice it, sautéed onions and caramelized onions make a great addition to many different recipes. Sautéed onions can also be the start of a delicious dinner. They're usually included in stir-fry recipes and recipes with ground meat, like meatloaf. Once you've mastered this cooking skill, there's no limit to the number of recipes you can upgrade with sautéed or caramelized onions.

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