If there is a God, he/she/it would smell like sauteed onions. Which tells you something about how fondly I think of the aroma of slow-cooked alliums. The interaction is so simple — sliced/diced onions, a little oil, a hot pan, a working nose — and all so perfect. Surely, sauteing onions is a sign of a higher intelligence.
Some cooks must not see it that way, however: Consider one of the hopefuls who submitted an entry to this year’s Smoke Signals Barbecue Sauce Recipe Contest. The first step of “No-Name Recipe No. 1” (ahem, not its real name): “Place the diced onion and garlic into a cold (unheated) saucepan, then set the stove to low heat. Sweat cook, stirring constantly, for about five minutes or until the onion is translucent. Note: Keep moving the onions and garlic around to prevent burning. If you hear a sizzling sound, add water one tablespoon at a time to prevent sticking or burning.”
Setting aside the notion that you can sweat raw diced onions in five minutes when you start with a cold pan, I’ll instead focus on the more troubling idea to me: cooking onions in a completely dry pan.
Personally, I had never heard of this approach. Neither had some of my colleagues here in the Food section. I thought it might be good to investigate the technique and provide some clarification on the difference between sweating, sauteing and caramelizing onions.
The reader who submitted this recipe specifically called for sweating the onions. Sweating is one of those terms that gets used and abused and misused, which is why I decided to consult with Larousse Gastronomique, the Oxford English Dictionary on culinary matters. According to Larousse, sweating means:
To cook vegetables (generally cut up small) in their own juices in a covered pan over a gentle heat, so that they become soft (but not brown). A little fat is usually used to begin the cooking process or more can be added for a rich result. The pan is covered during cooking, so the ingredients retain a certain amount of their natural moisture. Sweating is a popular alternative to sauteing or frying as a low-fat cooking method.
Sauteing, then, typically includes more fat. Again from Larousse, to saute means:
To cook meat, fish or vegetables in fat until brown, using a frying pan, a saute pan or even a heavy saucepan. Small items are cooked uncovered, but slightly thicker pieces (chicken, for example) sometimes need to be covered after browning, to complete the cooking. The process sometimes consists of frying food (which may be already cooked) while vigorously shaking the pan, which prevents it from sticking and ensures it is cooked on all sides. A sauce or gravy may be made by deglazing the cooking pan.
Caramelization is another process altogether. According to Larousse, caramelization is a specific technique when referring to vegetables:
Certain vegetables, such as small onions, carrots or turnips, are “glazed” — or lightly caramelized — by being heated with some sugar and a small quantity of water or butter in a saucepan.
(Incidentally, the so-called “caramelization” of meats is actually something more complex, a process called the Maillard Reaction, named after French physician Louis Camille Maillard who discovered it. According to the eminent food chemist Harold McGee, “Maillard flavors are more complex and meaty than caramelized flavors, because the involvement of amino acids adds nitrogen and sulfur atoms to the mix of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, and produces new families of molecules and new aromatic dimensions.” Here endeth the geek lesson.)
So where does that leave our good barbecue sauce entrant? The idea of sweating onions in a fat-less, water-less pan falls under none of these categories. It would seem to be a new, non-fat cooking category all its own, and let me tell you, it takes a long time to soften raw onions in a dry pan under low heat. I spent a good 20 to 25 minutes stirring those silly diced onions, almost willing them to turn translucent. After 25 minutes, with some crunch still hanging on the onions, I finally gave in and just proceeded with the rest of the recipe.
Worst of all, the dry-pan onions produced none of the aromatics that make the kitchen smell so heavenly. Dis-spiriting indeed.