We drop the word caramelised a lot, usually when we’re talking about grilling meats and roasting vegetables. Or, well, caramelising onions particularly in Indian cooking like curries. So what is the process of caramelisation? What are we really talking about here?
Caramelisation happens when sugar is introduced to heat. Compounds are released that alter the flavour and the colour of the sugar. The most immediately noticeable effect is the darkening of the sugar’s color.
What Does Caramelised Mean, Anyway?
Caramelisation isn’t only for onions. Get to know my favorite flavour-building maneouver.
You can caramelise sugar straight-up. That’s how we get caramel sauce for ice cream or that beautiful, crunchy top of a crème brûlée. But most caramelisation happens with sugars that are naturally found within other ingredients. Fruits and vegetables caramelise in the same way that pure sugar does. It just happens at a slower rate, since there’s less sugar. The browning on onions is the result of natural sugars being caramelised.
Caramelised food develops a flavour that goes beyond the one-noted sweetness of sugar. When sugars caramelise, they develop nuttiness, bitterness, toastiness, and even a little bit of buttery creaminess.
While caramelisation does happen with natural sugars, adding another sugary substance to whatever you’re cooking can help jump-start things a bit for foods that have either a low sugar content or no sugar at all. For that reason I often add a pinch of sugar when caremalisig my onions for curries.
Browning, on the other hand, which looks similar to caramelisation, can still happen in foods that don’t caramelise, like meats, eggs, bread, and dairy. This is a result of protein breakdown, not sugars browning, and it’s called the Maillard Reaction.
Differences with Caramelisation and Maillard reaction:
Both caramelisation and the Maillard reaction are reactions from which golden or sweet products are obtained. Both are classified as non-enzymatic browning. However, the first, caramelisation occurs only with sugars; while the second, Maillard reaction occurs between the sugars of a food and its protein content and the result is dozens, likely hundreds, of new flavour compounds.
When we make marinades for meats, what we’re really doing is coating them in a mixture that will start to caramelise as soon as it’s exposed to high heat. Glazes work the same way, thickening and developing deep, sweet flavour when brushed onto the outside of browned meats. This is why there should always be a sweet component, like honey, brown sugar, molasses, or regular sugar, in a marinade or glaze.
There are two things you need to keep in mind when you want to caramelise something. Caramelisation can only happen in dry heat, which means you can’t caramelise while steaming, blanching, boiling, or cooking with a sous vide machine. And caramelisation also needs high heat to happen quickly. If you try to caramelise a vegetable in a 300° oven or over a medium-low flame, you’ll end up with caramelisation eventually, but it will take a long time to get there. (Think caramelised onions.) High, dry heat is the quickest ticket to perfect caramelisation and a crispy exterior.
So yes, caramelisation is a little science-y. But you can handle it. You don’t need a degree to caramelise. You just need a yearning for extremely satisfying flavour. That shouldn’t be too hard to find.
So the next time you cook a curry:
My Tricks for Caramelising Onions:
The aforementioned caramelised onions are a popular addition to many dishes, and almost always the base to most curries, for good reason. Not only are onions cheap and nutritious, caramelising them provides a huge amount of flavour for relatively little effort. Plus, you can cook up giant batches ahead of time, which is very convenient for base gravies.
Here are a few tips for great caramelised onions:
Try to buy sweet onions, otherwise your onions will just taste overly browned rather than have that irresistible sweet/savory flavour.
Be careful not to cut your onions too far in advance. Diced onions over few days old lose a lot of water and structural integrity and will taste flavourless or burned once you try to caramelize them.
Adding baking soda helps onions to caramelise much faster by raising their pH level. A higher pH level speeds up the Maillard reaction, which is responsible for the browning of the sugars in food. It can increase the browning rate by over 50%, and it doesn’t take much—about 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda per pound of onions is all you need.
Add a pinch of sugar and a tiny pinch of baking soda to your onions at the start and cook on high heat to crisp and add a buttery flavour. I make Barista like that.
The key to getting really great caramelised vegetables besides heat is having the most surface area available on your veggies. The more area is exposed to flame, the more opportunity there is for flavour.
Grilling, roasting, and broiling are all optimal for caramelising vegetables, but the really important thing to note is how you slice them. Long and thin, will provide maximum surface for caramelisation. Tiny dice, will have more surface area relative to a big cube.
And remember: spread those vegetables in a shallow layer. If they’re piled on top of each other, they’ll only get mushy, rather than getting that intense, sweet, brown crunchiness that’s so desirable.
Add a spoon of sugar in vegatables when sauteing or ‘bhuna-ing for curries’. Boosts flavour!
I also add a pinch of sugar/sweetness to my marinades for meats when browning before a curry. Helps with colour and flavour!
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