Caramelized onions are rich and delicious, adding a slightly sweet and deep onion flavor to any meal. While many caramelized onion recipes are vegan, it’s very simple to make this decadent condiment/ side dish at home without butter or other non-vegan fat sources.
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Are Caramelized Onions Vegan?
Caramelized onions are hit or miss in terms of whether they are vegan. They’re often made with butter which is not typically vegan; however, it’s also possible to make caramelized onions using vegetable oil.
If eating at a restaurant, always ask how the caramelized onions are prepared.
If making caramelized onions at home, simply substitute any butter or non-vegan source of fat (ex. lard) for your favorite vegetable oil.
Vegan Caramelized Onion Ingredients
This caramelized onions recipe uses just a few basic ingredients which allows for the flavor of the onions to fully come through!
- Onions: There are plenty of onion varieties and pretty much any type can be caramelized! Regular white or yellow cooking onions work great and are what I typically use.
- Vegetable oil: To add flavor and a nice, rich texture to the onions, use your favorite vegetable oil. Any oil that’s okay at higher temperatures is fine to use and I recommend a neutral-tasting oil. I typically use avocado oil.
- Salt: Adding some salt to the onions as they cook draws moisture out of them and enhances flavor, helping to balance the sweeter flavors of the caramelizing sugars.
- Optional: You could add a teaspoon (more or less) of sugar to the onions once they start to caramelize. This creates a sweeter result and helps the onions caramelize to a rich flavor. It’s not necessary though. I find the sugar naturally present in onions is plenty to create a deliciously dark, rich flavor. You could also add in some black pepper for extra flavor!
How to Make Caramelized Onions without Butter
Caramelized onions are simple to make despite taking some time to prepare. Read below to learn my best tips and tricks for making delicious caramelized onions!
Step 1: Prep Onions
To begin, peel and slice your onions. Slice the onions as evenly as possible, otherwise they won’t cook properly.
In the video, you’ll see some onion slices that are larger and never fully darken/ caramelize. To avoid this, slice the onions thinly and evenly.
The thinner your onion slices, the faster they’ll cook. It’s worth some extra effort in the beginning.
To keep the slices evenly sized, peel the onion, cut it in half, then slice from root to tip. Rather than creating half-circles, slicing from root to tip creates more evenly sized pieces (with half-circles, you’ll have some very long and very small pieces).
Get the other ingredients ready including a glass of water to help with cooking.
Step 2: Caramelize Onions
Warm the oil in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat, then add your onions. Break apart the slices of onion and continue cooking until they start to soften and turn translucent.
At this point I like to add the salt and toss to coat the onions. Feel free to adjust the salt to your tastes.
Once the salt is in, I turn the heat down to medium or medium-low. This allows for a lower, slower caramelization without too much worry that the onions will burn. While they can caramelize faster at a higher temperature, I find they’re always a second away from burning and the result tastes more bitter compared to a slower, lower temperature cooking process.
Once you lower the heat, spread out the onions and let sit in your pan until they start to brown on the bottom. Toss them around so other parts of the onion can touch the pan then let them sit again.
Repeat this process until the onions are fully caramelized. You can stop cooking at a light golden stage or keep going to a fully dark, richly caramelized color. The deeper the color, the more flavor you’ll get!
It’ll take anywhere from 25 minutes to 40 minutes of cooking to fully caramelize the onions.
At times it’ll look like there’s lots of browning stuck to the bottom of the pan. I like to toss in about 2 tablespoons of warm water and scrape up this browning throughout the cooking process.
Overall I use ⅓ to ½ cup of water while browning the onions. Water helps speed cooking as it helps to soften (steam) the onions and pull up that browning onto the onions instead of the pan!
Don’t use cold water (it’ll cool off the pan and slow you down) and don’t stir your onions too often! If you watch the video, it looks like I’m tossing the onions around continuously but that’s only because I only filmed when I was tossing them.
How to Serve this Recipe
Caramelized onions can add incredible flavor to any recipe you like! They’re sweet with a rich flavor and a little goes a long way.
You could add some to avocado toast, wraps and sandwiches or stir into some prepared hummus. Why not use caramelized onions as a topping for a BBQ pulled jackfruit sandwich?!
The possibilities are truly endless for how you can serve this recipe. I’d love to hear what you use this recipe for in the comments below!
How to Refrigerate and Freeze Caramelized Onions
Caramelized onions do not last long in my house! Since a large amount of onion cooks down to a fairly small portion of caramelized onions, they’re really easy to get through quickly.
However, if you have leftovers to store, refrigerate them in an airtight container for up to 5 days. This is a great recipe to make in larger batches since it’s incredibly delicious but does take some time.
I haven’t tried freezing this recipe yet, but I’d imagine it can be frozen in a freezer bag or other freezer-safe container. Most foods can last in the freezer for a few months.
If you make this recipe, please rate and comment below to help others benefit from your experience!
Vegan Caramelized Onions
- 2 large onions (white or yellow)
- 2 tablespoons cooking oil (I use avocado)
- ¼ teaspoon salt (or to taste)
Step 1: Prep Onions
- Peel and cut the onions into thin, even slices. Thinner onions cook faster and even slices are important for the best result.2 large onions
- I recommend slicing the onions in half then slicing from root to tip (rather than half-circles) for the most even slices.
Step 2: Caramelize Onions
- Warm some vegetable oil in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat.2 tablespoons cooking oil
- Add the onions and break apart layers into individual pieces.
- Once the onions begin to soften and turn translucent, add salt (feel free to adjust to your taste preferences).¼ teaspoon salt
- At this point, lower the heat to medium or medium-low. Let the onions sit in your pan for 1-2 minute intervals to brown. Every few minutes, toss the onions around to brown evenly on all sides. Do not continuously toss the onions around or cooking will take much longer.
- It will take 25- 40 minutes to caramelize your onions. Stop as soon as they’re all lightly golden brown, or keep going until they’re a dark, rich brown color. The darker color is more flavorful.
- Towards the end of your cooking process, toss 1-2 tablespoons of water into the pan. This helps the browning lift from the pan and stick onto the onions. This isn’t necessary but I find it speeds the process (use warm water, not cold).
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About Nicole Stevens
Nicole is a vegan Registered Dietitian (RD) and founder of Lettuce Veg Out.
She helps people thrive on a vegan diet with balanced recipes and easy-to-understand nutrition science.