Start Out by Cooking an Onion

So many recipes and flavor formulas begin with that most basic overture, cooking an onion.

By Robert Danhi, CHE, CCP

Chef Robert Danhi

There exists no ingredient quite like the onion for adding subtle sweetness while bolstering other flavors at the same time. Yet as ancient and pan-cultural as the onion may be, the pure culinary approach can be referenced to create the best new products for your customers.

The way each onion variety is selected and cooked affects the flavor and texture of a finished food dramatically. While leeks and scallions can play a delicious role in cooking, globe onions of all kinds - yellow, white, red and sweet - are more versatile. Yellow onions are all-purpose onions, inexpensive, readily available and possessing the strongest flavor. They are used most often for cooking. White onions retain their texture better and are a bit milder. For raw applications, think "red." Also referred to as Bermuda onion, red onions are great for salsas and salads. (Of course, this doesn't discount their exciting flavor when slow-cooked into a jam or relish for meats.)

Using outsourced, freshly cut onions requires keeping a tight inventory rotation system to avoid flavor dissipation and to reduce the development of the sulfuric constituent of the onion. Both will negatively influence taste. The actual form of the onions will impact the texture, more than flavor, of the final item. Diced onions tend to stay intact and are expected in some dishes such as clam chowder. Puréed onions can be used as a secondary thickener or to add body to a recipe. So, too, can sliced onions if they are cooked until they break down.

There are numerous first-step cooking techniques that lay the foundational flavor of the humble onion. Sweating, sautéing and caramelizing - each produces unique flavors and textures. The first method, cooking the onions until soft and translucent, is the easiest technique to replicate in large-scale productions. Using the freshest onions or a high quality IQF supplier is critical to have the purest flavor. Sautéing over a higher heat until golden brown makes onions tender but not as soft as sweated onions. High heat and a minimum use of fat are two key elements of success for the perfect sautéed onion.

Caramelizing - very popular of late - creates multiple layers of flavor and sweetness. When the onions' sugars caramelize, hundreds of new compounds are generated, creating the most complex of profiles. If caramelization had a mantra, it would be "take your time." Caramel colors and additional flavorings are often used to make up for lack of time or technique.

One quart or one kettle - it begins with ingredient selection. Managing your raw ingredients will provide consistent quality. Cooking techniques will go toward determining color, texture and taste. All of this allows the modest onion to shine as an exemplar of how the simplest elements in cooking are the key to artful product development.

- Robert Danhi, CHE, CCP, consults with leading culinary organizations such as the Culinary Institute of America, Two Chefs on a Roll, Lee Kum Kee and Wing Hing Noodles. Contact him at

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