Layers of lies

Maple caramelized onionsTom Scocca of Slate magazine is taking recipe writers to task. After reading countless recipes that assure you that you will get caramelized onions in as little as 10 minutes, Scocca finally snapped and tweeted an all-caps rant about it.

He notes that even veteran cookbook authors make this claim: “Here’s Madhur Jaffrey, from her otherwise reliable Indian Cooking, explaining how to do the onions for rogan josh: ‘Stir and fry for about 5 minutes or until the onions turn a medium-brown colour.'” One author who gets the timing right, according to Scocca, is Julia Child. In her instructions on preparing onions for French Onion Soup, Child instructs us to cook the onions “slowly until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Blend in the salt and sugar, raise heat to moderately high, and let the onions brown, stirring frequently until they are a dark walnut color, 25 to 30 minutes.” This 40 to 45 minute mark is much closer to reality than the 10 to 20 minutes in many recipes.

Scocca tried several “short cut” methods, including one advocated by Melissa Clark of the New York Times. While he found that this using this technique did shave a few minutes off the time, he noted that Clark’s claim was “off by 180 percent on the cooking time. You can save 12 minutes off caramelizing onions, provided you pin yourself to the stove.” And that is one of the problems with any of the shortcut methods, according to Scocca. He posits that any time you save by using one of these so-called shortcuts is wiped out by the slavish devotion to the stove that they require.

So why do authors continue to perpetuate the myth of 20-minute caramelized onions? Probably because they are under pressure to keep cooking times to 30 minutes or less. “Telling the truth about caramelized onions would turn a lot of dinner-in-half-an-hour recipes into dinner-in-a-little-over-an-hour recipes.” Scocca goes on to note that other recipes also play fast and loose with the times noted for tasks. He takes on The Times’ scone recipe as another example.

In which recipes have you found the authors fudging on the time it takes to caramelize onions (or perform other tasks)?

Photo of maple caramelized onions from Closet Cooking

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  • Rinshin  on  July 27, 2014

    I certainly agree with this. I've tried different methods and still the best and easiest is Julia's and forget all this shortcuts.

  • veronicafrance  on  July 28, 2014

    He's spot on with his last paragraph. Cook the onions hours or days before you need them. Then you can cook dinner in half an hour.

  • Cubangirl  on  July 28, 2014

    I agree with him. It always takes me between 30 and 45 minutes to get a true caramelization. In the same vein, I get so frustrated when doing test recipes because the time given for reductions is always off by a lot. It always takes me twice as long.

  • Laura  on  July 28, 2014

    I agree completely. In fact, I find many recipes that are touted as "dinner in 30 minutes" (or less) are just unrealistic. The only way it could work is if all of the prep work was done ahead of time and you start the clock when you start cooking. Or, you have a team of people each responsible for one aspect of prep. Or, it's entirely possible that I'm just an extremely slow cook!

  • ptrefler  on  July 28, 2014

    It never occurred to me that you could caramelize an onion in less than 40 or 45 minutes. I learned to caramelize onions by reading Julie Child's book as mentioned above. I guess I just ignore the recipes that say 5 or 10 minutes. I could agree more with Laura's comments about timing of 30 minute recipes. I always noticed that Rachael Ray never had to actually wash or do anything except measure and chop to produce her 30 minute meals.

  • darcie_b  on  July 28, 2014

    I agree with Cubangirl, reductions always take much longer than the recipe states. I usually triple the time given and that's not always enough.

  • sir_ken_g  on  July 28, 2014

    The fastest way is in the microwave – it works.

  • susan g  on  July 28, 2014

    Of course carmelized onions are only the tip of one of many icebergs. Most recipes with onions and bell peppers direct you to saute the onions until translucent or wilted, then add the peppers, but my experience is that the peppers take longer to cook than the onions — I put them both in together and let them go as long as the peppers take. Last night I made a soup with "little French lentils" that had them cooked in 12 minutes after the liquids came to a boil –still very crunchy, cooked by 40 minutes… or did they really mean red lentils, as the head note implies (contradicting the title and ingredients)? Prep is the big unaccounted-for time killer, including 'where did I put the black soy sauce?' and oops, I thought I had another jar of… Thanks for the article and comments — lies, lies, people-pleasing lies!

  • FuzzyChef  on  July 28, 2014

    Cooking times are one of the many ways in which cookbook authors (or their publishers) fail to test recipes as written before publication. This results in many bad recipes: wildly unrealistic cooking times ("reduce the quart to 1/2 cup. 5 minutes"), way too much salt or too little, preposterously difficult techniques for unnecessary steps ("grate the brie on the fine holes of the grater", "puree the single brussel sprout in the food processor"), and — most frequently — vastly wrong liquid quantities.

    I get it, recipe testing is expensive and time-consuming. But why should I buy a cookbook of untested recipes? If I want untested recipes, I can get them for free off the internet.

  • hillsboroks  on  July 28, 2014

    I find when I am not sure if a recipe instructions are totally accurate I turn to my old copies of Cooks Illustrated magazines and several of their cookbooks to give me a trusted set of instructions. I may want to try a really jazzy version of an old standby and by finding the old standby in Cooks Illustrated or another trusted source and comparing times and instructions I save myself lots of headaches.

  • Foodycat  on  July 28, 2014

    I also remember seeing an eggplant recipe where they said to bake it for 10 minutes until soft. Eggplant takes AGES to bake properly!

    The onion thing is terribly irritating – taking a shortcut with caramelising onions makes them terribly indigestible.

  • Queezle_Sister  on  July 28, 2014

    Not only is it frustrating when the time line given for a recipe is wrong, it turns cooking time, which should be one of the highlights of my day, into a stress test. But how can we get cookbooks (and cookbook editors) to change? Would the public really buy a book that claimed "most recipes take 45 – 55 minutes"?

  • aoconnor  on  August 1, 2014

    It seems like they would suggest another time-saving method like caramelizing onions in batches and freezing them if you truly need a half-hour dinner. Otherwise, what better way to spend an evening than luxuriating over the smell of slowly browning onions with a glass of wine and perhaps a book to pass the time?

  • ellabee  on  August 2, 2014

    While Madhur Jaffrey's time for brown-fried onions is as wildly inaccurate as some of the others for caramelized onions, be aware that the two processes are not the same thing. Brown-frying onions takes 20 minutes; often garlic and ginger are added near the end, and the result is an essential component of many Moghul dishes. Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking gives detailed instructions for the process on pages 71-72.

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