Onions are the foundation for many dishes, and cooking them properly is key to a good start. Learn to cook them from translucent to crispy, crunchy umami bombs.
Easy, Enticing Chicken Biryani

Onions are Foundational

Onions are foundational ingredients for many cuisines. Depending on what you are cooking, you will cook them to varying degrees of doneness. In Indian cooking the darker and more full-flavored the dish, the longer they are cooked at lower temperatures. I find one of the toughest things about cooking onions, but also the most gratifying, is that it takes patience. I am impatient generally. They smell so good and bring such sweetness and depth of flavor to anything you are cooking.

Cutting and Avoiding the Burn

Since I always seem to be in a hurry, I prefer to mince my onions very fine. So if a sauce is typically pureed in a blender, I can often avoid this step. You get to decide how smooth a sauce you prefer, and for most recipes, an impeccably silky sauce is not important.

I am not a big raw onion fan. The exceptions are sweet onions (Vidalia for example), mild shallots, and scallions. To reduce the burn you can pickle diced or sliced onions for 15 minutes or more, in lemon juice or vinegar. Another trick is to blanch the cut onions in boiling water for a minute or two which will do the same thing. Treated this way the onions won’t be quite as crisp, but depending on how you plan to use them, that may be just fine.

How to Cook Onions

Cooking onions can be one of the most time-consuming parts of a dish, besides marination. The darker, and heavier the protein, the longer, and darker you will want to cook the onions. Thus, in a vegetable, legume, or fish dish, you are most often required to cook the onions just until translucent, or to a pink color, when using red onions. This step takes about 6 minutes on medium-high, with frequent stirring.

For Chicken

When cooking a chicken dish, it may be suggested that you cook the onions to a more caramelized stage. This takes between 8 to 15 minutes over medium heat, with water added as needed to prevent sticking.

For Beef or Lamb

If you are making a lamb or beef masala, the recipe may require a full-on melty, caramelized state, which can take 35 to 45 minutes.

Wonderful Birista

Another onion preparation is called birista/beresta, which is frying very thinly sliced onions in oil, until dark brown and crispy. Birista is used in biryanis, kormas, and pulaos. One of my favorite Indian food blogs, Cubes N Juliennes, has a great post on using and making this onion preparation that gives flavor and texture to many Indian dishes.

The Good News

If you do a lot of Indian cooking, you can make a big batch of caramelized onions or birista, and pop it in the freezer in 1/2 cup batches. Then pull out when needed. Birista is especially handy to add flavor to fried rice, pizza, hamburgers and more. It is worth keeping in mind that the larger the batch of onions you make, the longer it will take to cook. Should you be so ambitious, four pounds of onions will take up to an hour to cook. This, along with making ginger garlic paste, are the perfect Saturday or Sunday, putter in the kitchen, kind of project that you can do while catching up on your favorite podcasts. 

Measurement Notes

I typically call for any kind of onions in my recipes, though occasionally, like in my korma, yellow or white onions are preferred to keep the masala pale in color. Onions are one of the underpinnings of Indian cooking. Red small onions are most frequently used, and they are much smaller than the onions we find here in the U.S. So, I have used cups and grams throughout, as a more precise way to express measurements than just use 2 onions. Every now and then, a recipe calls for shallots, and as with onions, Indian shallots are much smaller than the ones I find. My calculation is that 2 American shallots equal 10 Indian shallots. Here are more benchmarks:

Onions:

1 cup of thinly sliced onions equals about 100 grams = 3.5 ounces

1 large onion, peeled = 3 cups chopped = 368 grams = 13 ounces

1 medium onion, peeled = 1 cup chopped = 122 grams = 4.5 ounces

1 cup finely minced onions = 225 grams = 8 ounces

Shallots:

If you are following Indian cooks like I am, it is important to know that Indian shallots are much smaller than the ones found here in the U.S. I would use 2 to 3 U.S. shallots to about 10 Indian shallots.

1 large U.S. shallot, peeled = 1/2 cup chopped = 71 grams = 2.5 ounces

Happy cooking!

~ Alonna

See the Notes below before you cook.

Easy, Enticing Chicken Biryani

How to Cook Onions

Onions are the foundation for many dishes, and cooking them properly is key to a good start. Learn to cook them from translucent to crispy, crunchy umami bombs.
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Course: Ingredient
Cuisine: Indian
Keyword: Birista, Freezer Friendly, make ahead, Onions, vegan
Prep Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients

Onions Cooked to Translucent

  • onions ~ As called for in recipe
  • oil or ghee ~ As called for in recipe

Onions Cooked to Golden Brown

  • onions ~ As called for in recipe
  • oil or ghee ~ As called for in recipe

Onions Cooked to Dark Brown and Caramelized

  • onions ~ As called for in recipe
  • oil or ghee ~ As called for in recipe

Birista ~ Onions Cooked until Crispy

  • 2 cups onions ~ Sliced thinly and evenly as possible
  • 1/2 cup neutral oil ~ Avocado, peanut, or canola oils all work

Instructions

Onions Cooked to Translucent

  • Cook onions until they go from opaque to translucent. This is done for lighter food such as seafood and some chicken dishes. Time: 4 to 6 minutes over medium-high heat
    How to Cook Onions

Onions Cooked to Golden Brown

  • Cook onions until they are browned around the edges. Great for most dishes: chicken, vegetables and some meat. Time:  8 to 15 minutes over medium-high heat
    How to Cook Onions

Onions Cooked to Dark Brown and Caramelized

  • Cooking onions to a dark brown caramelize color will add a richness to anything you are cooking. This method is used when making meat dishes, especially mutton curries. Time: 35 to 40 minutes
    How to Cook Onions

Birista ~ Onions Cooked until Crispy

  • Birista is simply onions fried in oil until golden brown and crispy. They are used in biryanis, kormas, pulaos, and more. Time: (depending on the amount) 8 to 12 minutes over medium-high heat.
    How to Cook Onions
  • Cut the onions very thin and evenly, use a mandolin if you have one. Dry the onions.
  • In a heavy saucepan, add the oil and heat to medium-high. Add the onions (in 2 batches if cooking more than 2 cups of onions) and cook for 8 to 12 minutes, or until golden brown and crispy.
    How to Cook Onions
  • Drain on paper towels.Store in an airtight container in the freezer if you are not using that day.
    Easy, Enticing Chicken Biryani

Notes

Tips on cooking onions:
  • While cooking onions for a masala, if they ever start looking dry and start sticking to the bottom of the pan, or are browning too fast, stir in a splash of water to moisten them. Keep water by your stove while cooking!
  • Especially when making caramelized onions or birista, cook more than you need for your current cooking and freeze. Place in an airtight container and store in the freezer. Don’t store in the refrigerator even if only keeping for 3 to 4 days, because they will lose their flavor and crispness.