Sunday, January 27, 2008

Carmelized Onions, and Meat Enhancer

In my previous post I spoke about carmelization as it applies to condensed milk. In this post I want to talk about a different method of carmelization, and a really cool way to apply it.

Onions are my favorite vegetable, and I like them in every way possible: fried, raw, boiled, sweated, sauteed, and most especially carmelized. Carmelizing requires a lot of patience, because you are using the usual process of sauteing but at a lower temperature for a longer time.

Carmelization is actually a chemical process that simple sugar (sucrose) undergoes at a fairly narrow range of temperatures. Below this temperature, nothing happens to the sugar. Above, and it burns. So the goal is to keep the food that contains the sugar at this temperature range for long enough for the carmelization to happen.

When sugar carmelizes, it splits into two molecules: fructose and glucose. This adds no extra calories: in fact, this happens inside the body once sucrose is ingested anyway. The main benefit to splitting the molecules outside the body is that fructose is twice as sweet as glucose, so you are increasing the sweet taste without increasing the total sugar intake.

However, this is only part of carmelization, as there are a number of other molecular changes that take place that I won't go into. Suffice it to say that the flavor simply becomes more complex. So you get both a sweeter and richer taste.

With onions, you want to start in a shallow pan with thinly sliced onions and a bit of water and salt in addition to the butter or oil. The water will begin to steam, and this will quickly warm the onions and encourage them to release their moisture. This is important, because we cannot reach carmelization temperature until the water inside the onions is mostly gone. This is because evaporation cools them, keeping them below the 350 degree mark that we want.

When the onions have reduced, you can sprinkle them with a bit of sugar. For some reason this encourages the carmelization process, but I am not sure why. Just keep an eye on the onions to make sure they do not burn, and reduce the temperature as the onions become darker. The color you want to get to is a dark golden color, or even darker if you have the patience.

Carmelized onions are good in so many dishes: French Onion soup, mashed potatoes, or as toppings for hot dogs or hamburgers. But a nice little trick I learned from watching Heston Blumenthal is to include some Star Anise with the onions when you carmelize them. The way he explained it is that there is an additional chemical reaction that happens that creates flavor compounds that enhance the flavor of whatever meat you are cooking with. He uses this in his Bolognese sauce, but it will work equally well with stews, and a topping for roasts or whatever you can imagine.

Basically, it works like MSG, but without the side effects!

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