How to Boil Water: Sautéing Onions

French onion dip
(A. Sparrow / For The Times)

With so many of you having to stay home and cook for the first time — ever or more than you have in a long time — we get that it can be overwhelming to have to cook all your meals from scratch. So we’re here to get you started.

Each weekday, we’re going to post a new skill here and go into detail about how to do it — a resource for cooking basics so you can get food on the table and get through this.

This simple formula for stir-fried vegetables uses only three ingredients and doesn’t require a wok. It’s an ideal base technique for any stir-fry dish.

Lesson 2: Sauteing Onions


Once you know how to properly saute onions, you are never far from a delicious meal. You can scrape them out of the pan and onto rice, pasta, steak, sandwiches, tacos — just about anything. Or you can use them as a starting point and add more ingredients to make a soup, stew, braise, curry, omelet, scrambled eggs, vegetable or meat saute. There are two ways I think about doing it.

Sauteed onions are not caramelized onions. Here’s the difference.

To get sauteed onions that are lightly browned around the edges and just translucent in the center with a faint crunch to each bite, start by setting a medium skillet over medium-high heat. After a few minutes, add 2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil. As soon as the oil glides fast on the surface like a speed skater — it’s a matter of seconds — add a diced or sliced small onion (about ½ cup). Sprinkle with salt and stir well. Cook, stirring now and then, until the onion is as browned and tender as you’d like, 4 to 6 minutes. If you’re going to add other ingredients, do it right now.

My preferred method results in onion pieces that are evenly tender and golden or browned all the way through. Combine ¼ cup vegetable or olive oil with a diced or sliced small onion (½ cup) in a small skillet and sprinkle with salt. Spread out the onions in a single, flat layer. The oil should just cover them; if not, add a little more. Turn the heat to medium and let the onion cook, stirring now and then, until it’s as browned and tender as you like, 8 to 10 minutes. If you’re going to cook other foods in the same skillet, drain excess oil into a bowl if you’d like before adding more ingredients. Save that oil for the tastiest future sautes or scrambled eggs.


Try those onions in this recipe from from-scratch sour cream and onion dip.

Homemade Sour Cream and Onion Dip

Time 15 minutes
Yields Makes about 1 1/4 cups