How to Caramelize, Plus 5 Sweet and Savory Recipes

Caramelized sugar creates fantastic flavor in Onion Soup with Croutons, Penne with Pepper Steak and Caramelized Onions, Caramel Flan, and other recipes.

June 9, 2010

Caramelized sugar gives crème brûlée its sweet crunch.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—As fans of homemade caramel desserts know quite well, caramelizing involves the browning of sugar to bring out a deep, toasty, almost buttery flavor. But this method also works with fruits and vegetables, thanks to their natural sugars. The most common example is when you caramelize onions to create a rich brown hue and sweet, jamlike consistency. Other vegetables that caramelize well include carrots, shallots, and several vegetables in the cabbage family, such as brussels sprouts. Same thing with many fruits, thanks to their high levels of natural sugar.


Learning how to caramelize onions and other vegetables isn't difficult. As for caramel sauce itself, it’s simple to make, and can be used to great effect in flans, crème brûlées, and other desserts. Start with a high-quality heavy saucepan, which helps you brown the sugar evenly (thinner pans tend to have hot spots that lead to burning). A pan with a light-colored, shiny interior is best, such as stainless steel, as this allows you see the color changes so you know how the caramel is developing. In the pan, mix 3 tablespoons of water with ¾ cup of granulated white sugar, and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly for about a minute, until the sugar is completely dissolved. Then cover the pan, bring the mixture to a boil, and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, without stirring, until the bubbles are thick.

Uncover the pan, lower the heat to medium and cook, without stirring, for about 2 minutes more, until the caramel darkens to a medium amber color. You’ll be tempted to stir the mixture, but don’t. Doing so will lower the temperature, which prevents proper browning. And by stirring before the water evaporates, the syrup might crystallize. Watch the caramel carefully as it starts to darken, as it can turn from golden to burned in seconds. When it’s amber colored, immediately remove it from the heat and use it for your recipe.

Caramelized onions are a dish you’ll go back to again and again, once you’ve tried them. They’re so tasty, and go well with almost everything. To prepare them, heat a tablespoon of olive oil or butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add two large, thinly sliced Vidalia or Spanish onions and cook until translucent, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add a teaspoon of table sugar or brown sugar, and if desired, a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar. Lower the heat to medium-low, cover the pan, and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are very soft.

For incredible caramelized dishes that range from savory to oh-so-sweet, check out these ideas from the Rodale Recipe Finder.

#1: Onion Soup with Croutons. Caramelized onions are the star ingredient in this classic French onion soup.

#2: Caramelized Onion and Lentil Spread. To make full use of versatile, flavorful caramelized onions in an appetizer, try this spread or Caramelized Onion Bruschetta.

#3: Grilled Chicken Burgers with Caramelized Onions. Add serious flavor to low-fat chicken burgers by topping them with—you guessed it!—caramelized onions.

#4: Penne with Pepper Steak and Caramelized Onions. Penne and steak become extra-satisfying with the addition of onions, and their rich intensity also adds interest to vegetarian dishes such as Polenta with Caramelized Onions and Mushrooms.

#5: Caramel Flan with Fresh Fruit. Caramel is a crucial component of European-inspired desserts such as flan and Classic Crème Brûlée.