Frying the onions properly is crucial when preparing an Indian meal.The onions need to be browned almost dark brown (but NOT burnt!) so that they can disintegrate easily and later form a base that will thicken the dish, and create a lavish sauce to drawn your rice in, or mop with a piece of bread! If you brown them properly, there will be hardly any pieces of onion visible in the final dish.
Browning the onions is one of those things you may take for granted if you’re used to it, but it’s really important for the novice cook. Most recipes simply say ‘brown the onions’, but what this really means is often elusive, because this colour has many hues. I remember seeing my Punjabi friend do it for the first time: I thought they looked dangerously browned indeed! For this reason, I’ve decided to write this post to share what I’ve learnt. I’ll describe the process in detail, so you know what to expect at various stages. One of these days, I’ll illustrate it with photos, too. I’ve learnt how to do this through observing others, through practice, and from Julie Sahni, who has a fantastic section on how to fry onions in her beautiful and informative book Classical Indian Cooking.
My mum browns the onions in a similar way when making Croatian sauces and stews (e.g. her tomato sauce), though they end up a little less lighter in colour than I when I’m making an Indian dish. I’d describe this hue as dark golden, or light brown.
Tips – GHEE
Oils don’t reach such high temperatures, which is why I like using ghee to fry my onions. Ghee gets up to a very high temperature relatively quickly, and stays that way, so I find it takes me less time to cook the onions when I use it. The trouble is, I know it’s not the healthiest option!
Techniques – Slicing onions
This is how I like slicing my onions. They look gorgeous, and cook rather evenly. Another advantage is that I find it quicker than chopping onions, as it takes hardly any time to do it.
This is how I do it. I take the sharpest small knife that I’ve got. Of course, you can use a bigger one, but it’s easier to use a small one. Also, the sharper, the better! I peel the onion, and cut it half, removing the hard end at the top where the little moustache used to be. Then, I slice the onion thinly, creating thin semicircles of onion rings. That’s it!
Techniques – FRYING ONIONS to make Indian food
1. Slice the onions as above.
2. Heat the ghee to medium high. To test that the ghee is hot enough, put the wooden spoon into the ghee, or a piece of onion. When the ghee starts to sizzle, it’s hot enough!
3. Add the onions to the ghee and mix to coat them thoroughly.
4. Fry until they start to brown (yellow onions) or going dark purple (red onions), stirring occasionally. At this point, I add ginger, chilies and garlic (preferably in this order). You will see the onions go through different stages. First, they will start getting translucent, and absorb the oil. Do not be tempted to add more, just stir. They’ll release the fat later. Then, the onions will start looking shiny and moist. After that, they will loose their moisture and start turning brown, releasing the ghee. Watch out for this. At this point, you have to be very careful, and stir often; the onions will start going brown/dark very quickly now! If they start to burn, add a tbsp of water, and stir! But don’t let them burn. If they burn, you’re buggered, basically. Burnt onions will make the whole dish bitter. Unfortunately, it’s best to start again!
5. Now you can add powdered spices, if using any. Again, if the onions look like they’re dangerously close to burning, add a tbsp of water to them. Stir for a few seconds, taking care not to burn the spices. Use your sense of smell to gauge what is going on.
6. Now add meat, if using. Adding the meat which is cool (cooler than onions) is going to bring the temperature of the whole dish down, and stop it from burning.
7. After that, the meat will start releasing its juices. Keep stirring. The onions will start dissolving in the meat juices, which will form a basis for a thick sauce. When the meat is browned the way you like it, simply add a little water, and let it cook for a bit more!
That’s all folks!
NOTE – CROATIAN COOKING
In Croatian cooking, most of the times onions are cooked until browned, but not as dangerously brown as described above. I guess I could describe it as dark golden colour, or light brown. We normally use yellow or white onions, while the red onions are used in salads.