Yes, you can caramelize onions in the oven on a sheet pan

Tired of standing and stirring? Let the oven take some of the work off your plate

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published February 5, 2022 4:59PM (EST)

Cheeseburger with caramelized onions, fried egg and aioli on rustic cutting board (Getty Images/istetiana)
Cheeseburger with caramelized onions, fried egg and aioli on rustic cutting board (Getty Images/istetiana)

Patience is not my strongest virtue. When I know something exciting is coming up — an event, a vacation, even just a single day off — I anticipate it with real "kid waiting for Christmas" energy.

Cooking, however, helps train my self-restraint. It's amazing how a few batches of underdone cookies or a still-too-warm cake with the icing sliding off the sides can push even the most impatient people to slow down, if only for a moment. Over the years, I've learned that the best things really do come to those who wait. Case in point: caramelized onions.

Nothing elevates a burger, sandwich or grain bowl quite like jammy, mahogany-brown caramelized onions. They're sweet, pungent — and they typically take a lot of time and babysitting to get just right. When I want to upgrade a meal with caramelized onions, I know that I need to basically budget an extra hour to stare at onions in a pan and stir. Then stand, stir and stare some more. 

RELATED: This cheesy, no-tear French onion soup is ready in under 30 minutes

The other day though, I had a few back-to-back-to-back student evaluations that didn't leave me with much time to stand and stir. I, of course, also really wanted caramelized onions to add to what would be a late-night dinner of frozen sausage and pepper pizza. (Try it sometime — it really will change your frozen pizza game!)

It was then that I had an epiphany. Why not put the onions on a sheet pan? I could roast them low and slow, flipping them between my 15- to 20-minute calls. I sliced my onions into uniform pieces, tossed them with olive oil and salt, and spread them on a parchment-covered sheet pan, praying for the best. 

Over the course of two hours and 15 minutes, I baked the onions at 250 degrees. I flipped them whenever I had a quick break. Initially, I was concerned they would burn, but about halfway through the bake, I realized that was pretty unlikely. By the time I pulled them out, they could have easily spent another hour in the oven for deeper color and flavor.

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Over time, they transformed from raw, white onion slices to sweet, browned strands with soft centers and slightly crispy tips. Were they as silky and jammy as the internet famous 4-hour caramelized onions? No, but considering the minimal effort (and how the cooking process gelled with my evening's schedule), the result was pretty ideal. 

As with most good things food-related, I'm not the first person to have this epiphany. Notably, Melissa d'Arabian of the Food Network has a method for slow-roasted onions that incorporates balsamic vinegar as a caramelizing agent. Her version, however, recommends cutting the onions in quarters. That doesn't leave them quite browned enough for my taste, but it definitely cuts down a bit on the prep. 

So, the next time you're craving caramelized onions but aren't feeling up to the whole stand and stir rigamarole, grab your sheet pan and give onion-caramelized onions a try. 

Wondering how to put your caramelized onions to use? Add them to these recipes: 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Cooking Food How-to Onions Oven Sheet Pan