If there is one trick I’ve learned in all of my years cooking, both at home and in restaurants, it is this: caramelized onions can make almost anything taste amazing. They’re the ridiculously simple, yet magical ingredient that turns an ordinary dish into something so rich-tasting and satisfying that people go …oh hi excuse me, this is incredible.
I think the simple reason that caramelized onions taste so good, is because they are a labour of love. Not like an all-day stirring the pot kinda deal, but most definitely a food that you can’t just leave on the stove and dive into an Instagram vortex. No. Caramelized onions take care and attention, at least for the better part of half an hour, and the results are so worth it I bet you’ll catch yourself multi-tasking at the stove tonight just to have some on hand to gussy up your omelet this weekend (boss move there, by the way).
The more accurate reason that caramelized onions taste so good however, isn’t technically caramelization – it’s called the Maillard reaction. The Maillard reaction is a browning reaction similar to caramelization, but with one distinct difference: caramelization is a chemical reaction between reducing sugars, while Maillard is a chemical reaction between reducing sugars and amino acids (proteins). And yes, there is enough protein in an onion to elicit this response – how thrilling for us! Although the Maillard reaction is very complex and complicated, what we do know is that it requires heat to transform and rearrange sugars and amino acids to create new and fantastic flavour molecules in and on your food, making it even more delicious. If you’ve ever eaten a golden slice of toast, enjoyed a rich cup of coffee, or nibbled on a grilled vegetable, you’ve experienced the pure pleasure that all of this this chemical commotion is responsible for. Science!
Harnessing the power of the Maillard reaction can make you a better cook, because things that are browned properly taste more intensely, more complex, and well, better. Without even being aware of it, it’s the reason you’ll reach for the roasted veggies with the crispiest edges, or the reason that you prefer a fried egg over a boiled one (no judgement!). There are a couple ways of making this spectacular series of chemical reactions work for you, and the first is high heat. Maillard will not occur at very low temperatures, especially in situations where the food is not in direct contact with the heat, like it is on a skillet or grill for instance. When you’re roasting veggies, make sure the oven is at least 400°F / 200°C. When you’re making pizza, you can crank it up even higher, to get those beautifully blistered crust edges that make your mouth water.
The second way is to keep the food you’re cooking on the dry side. For instance, have you ever noticed how if you wash mushrooms (which you should actually never do), they’ll never really get brown and crusty? Too much moisture! Instead, brush those fungi gently to remove any dirt or debris, then put them in a screeching hot pan with some ghee and don’t stir them. I talk more about this technique here. This is the same reason you need a large pan for these caramelized onions, since they’ll need the space to allow the water to evaporate around them. If the onions are too close together, they’ll only steam each other. Eew. If you’re oven roasting vegetables for dinner, cut them in the morning and leave them out all day uncovered so that the surface water will evaporate, and the veggies will brown more easily. Yes, this seems like a bit of a hassle, but the culinary nerd in me admits that it’s cool because it works.
So, where does the hummus come into this story? Well, hummus is pretty much a food group in my world. I’ve made so many variations with so many kinds of legumes, spices, alt seed butters, toppings, and stir-ins, that I could hardly believe I had never tried it with the ingredient that could single-handedly save humanity: caramelized onions. I knew that deep richness of the onions would meld perfectly with the creamy dip, and make the flavour even better. I wasn’t wrong! The only thing that I wanted to improve upon, was the protein content – not because I’m obsessed with protein, but simply because I thought it could be higher. To do that I simply swapped out the traditional chickpeas for white lentils, or urad dal. We not only get more protein from this change-up, but almost double the fiber, with less sodium, less fat, and less sugar. Sweet.
This dip is the perfect, rich compliment to all the crisp and light, early summer veggies popping up. I went to my friend’s farm and picked some seriously beautiful radishes and young carrots, which paired so well with the caramelized onion flavour. I also had some Life-Changing Crackers on hand, which always make dipping more delicious. One thing I changed from the first version to the third, was the onions on top. Instead of blending all of them into the dip, I used about a third of them on top, which allows you to scoop a few tender morsels up with each bite. This delivers even more caramelized onion flavour and texture, which, let us be reminded, is the whole point of this exercise.
Even though this hummus keeps well for at least five days in the fridge (you can even freeze it!), it is best eaten freshly made at room temperature, since the flavour is at its peak then.
And because you’re wondering, you can find white or ivory lentils at Indian grocers, Middle Eastern markets, or some natural food stores. They are the skinned and split version of urad dal, which is black, so make sure you buy the huskless version! If you can’t find them at all, simply use chickpeas – it will be just as delicious.
Caramelized Onion and White Lentil Hummus
Makes about 2 cups / 500ml
¾ cup raw white lentils (huskless split black mapte beans / urad dal dhuli), soaked if possible
1 small clove garlic
3 Tbsp. tahini
3 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tsp. balsamic vinegar
½ tsp. fine sea salt
¼ tsp. ground cumin
heaping ¼ tsp. freshly cracked black pepper
1 batch caramelized onions (from the recipe below)
cold-pressed olive oil, for garnish
1. Start by cooking the lentils. If you’ve soaked them beforehand (even an hour helps!) drain and rinse them very well. If you’re starting from raw, place the lentils in the cooking pot, cover with plenty of water and vigorously swish them around with your hands. When the water becomes murky, drain and repeat until the water is clear, or mostly clear (this can take 3-4 rounds). Place lentils in the cooking pot and cover generously with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer and cook partially covered for about 20-30 minutes, depending on whether or not you soaked them. The lentils should be cooked until mushy. If the pot becomes dry during cooking, simply add more water. Once cooked, drain the lentils if there is any remaining water. Set aside to cool.
2. In a food processor pulse the garlic until finely minced. Add the tahini, lemon juice, balsamic, salt, cumin and pepper, then blend until combined. Add the cooked lentils and blend on high until smooth. Lastly, add about two-thirds of the caramelized onions, and pulse to incorporate them into the dip. Taste and adjust seasoning if desired.
3. To serve, spoon the hummus into a serving bowl. Make a small divot in the center of the dip and spoon in the remaining caramelized onions. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with your toppings of choice (I used toasted black sesame and chive flowers for a splash of colour, but this is totally optional). Serve with crispy fresh veggies and crackers or toasted flatbreads. Enjoy.
2 Tbsp. neutral-tasting coconut oil or ghee
1 lb. / 500g yellow onions
¼ tsp. fine sea salt
1. Peel the onions and slice them as evenly as possible into half-rounds.
2. Melt coconut oil or ghee over medium heat in the largest skillet you have. Add the onions, then salt, and stir well to coat. Once the onions are coated, turn the heat down to a medium-low, stirring occasionally – more often towards the end – until they’ve fully caramelized, about 25-30 minutes. If the pot becomes too dry during cooking, reduce the heat a tad, or add a teeny bit of water adn stir well. In the end, you’re looking for soft, silky, and golden brown goodness! Store leftovers in the fridge for up to four days, or freeze for 3 months.
If it’s your first time caramelizing onions and you’re feeling intimidated, here is a stellar step-by-step tutorial from Bon Appétit. It varies ever so slightly from my method, but you’ll get the picture!
Big love and happy hummus,
Show me your hummus on Instagram: #mnrcaramelizedonionhummus
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Hello dear friends!
There are only a few spots left for our January 2019 Wild Heart High Spirit retreat and we’d love to see you in Bali!
Join us along with 15 other women to unwind, reconnect, and find the inspiration to ignite you on your health journey. Our thoughtfully-designed program will awaken and nourish your entire being – body, mind, and spirit! This is a true celebration of life, and we get to do it together in paradise! Come see what all the magic is about.
Sarah B, Mikkala and the Golden Circle Retreats team