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Why do we soften onions?

Discussion in 'Cookery' started by nizebaby, Nov 28, 2019.

  1. nizebaby

    nizebaby Star commenter

    I reckon they're often better left to go silky and soft by simply cooking alongside the other stuff. Saves time and fuel too!

    Obvious exception: Indian food.
    sbkrobson likes this.
  2. Lara mfl 05

    Lara mfl 05 Star commenter

    Depends on what I'm cooking whether I pre-soften onions. As you say if doing a stew for example, either in a traditional oven or slow cooker, they soften anyway with pure length of cooking time.
  3. nick909

    nick909 Star commenter

    The maillard reaction that results in the browning and caramelisation of onions is essential in some dishes and can't be overlooked, I think. Obvious examples being onion gravy or French onion soup, as well as the above mentioned Indian food.

    If you're not after any colour or caramelisation, then I guess throwing them in is fine, although I still generally like them to have a little colour. They seem richer, and are both sweeter and more savoury.

    The cooking of a sofrito for the base of a bolognese sauce traditionally is done for ages. If I've got the time to do this, then I have no problem in doing it. I find it quite therapeutic.

    Although the browning of onions for curries can be done quite quickly if you do it with the lid on, over a high heat, shaking now and then. The steam trapped in the pan seems to stop them burning, yet they will brown quite successfully. Takes barely any time. You can finish with the lid off if you want them more brown. A tip I got from an Indian woman that works extremely well!
  4. lapinrose

    lapinrose Star commenter

    Agree with Nick, it is the maillard reaction, something more associated with meat.
    nick909 and Lara mfl 05 like this.
  5. Piranha

    Piranha Star commenter

    @nick909 - perhaps the most good advice I have ever seen in one post! Thanks.
    nick909 and Lara mfl 05 like this.
  6. primarycat

    primarycat Star commenter

    @nick909 has put far more eloquently than I would have what I wanted to say.

    I made a stew the other day where the recipe called for the chunks of meat and onion to be open roasted before liquid was added. It was a less labour intensive way to brown them and worked in that recipe, at least.
    Lara mfl 05 likes this.
  7. nizebaby

    nizebaby Star commenter

    I made the mistake yesterday of following a recipe's instructions to dice and then soften onions before making butternut squash soup. However soft they became, they had an unpleasant nubbliness in the finished article. Next time, I'll either leave them out or boil them with the celeriac I put into the soup. The celeriac was great.

    I've stopped frying onions for most stews. I like the silkiness of the unfried ones. Indian food is different: Julie Sahni [look her up if you don't know her already] gives detailed instructions of all the different ways of cooking onions. Fascinating.

    One last thing: the soup didn't need onion. It lacked something, but I haven't quite decided what yet. A Polish friend did us a lovely butternut soup last week. She added beetroot and [a good tip, this, I think] a courgette to lighten the texture.
    Lara mfl 05 likes this.
  8. BelleDuJour

    BelleDuJour Star commenter

    There's a difference between softening (ie, translucent but not coloured) and browning/caramelising which is the maillard reaction.
    Many recipes call for onions to be softenend but not coloured, which is what I understood Nizebaby was referring to.
    I've just whacked a chilli in the Aga to slow cook overnight. No onions were softened in this dish, nor garlic, chillies or green peppers. Just chucked everything in a big pot and am allowing time......lots of it.............to develop the flavours.
    The maillard reaction, FYI, is a chemical reaction between proteins and sugars in the food, and happens only at high temperatures, such as when you fry, roast or grill.

    nizebaby and Lara mfl 05 like this.
  9. sbkrobson

    sbkrobson Star commenter

  10. nizebaby

    nizebaby Star commenter

    Quite possibly. I suppose you can roast any preferred combination and come up with a winner! I looked at too many websites and just managed to confuse myself.

    I did a venison and mushroom pie yestderday, and I lightly browned the onions. Perfect. The flavours were properly developed. No carrots or celery, by the way. Chicken neck stock and the mushroom liquor. It was (though I say so myself) absolutely delicious.

    It is true, I think, that you don't always have to fry the onions. I prefer
  11. nizebaby

    nizebaby Star commenter

    I think I'm now clearer in my mind when to brown, when to soften and when to leave well alone and let long cooking take its time. Actually, if I listened to instinct and experience, I'd never have a problem. Overuse of online recipes can be an obstacle to confident cooking.

    Nick, sofritos are the basis for many a filipino recipe. We all love a good sofrito! It's a beautiful word.
  12. Lara mfl 05

    Lara mfl 05 Star commenter

    I do think experience plus instinct and a knowledge of family preferences should always superceded any actual 'recipe' instructions.

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