A Chef’s Eye View on Cooking Onion and Garlic

The scent of onions cooking evokes memories of great meals eaten with family and friends. And when that delicious scent is mingled with garlic, you’ve reached culinary nirvana. With a chef’s eye view on cooking onion and garlic, cooking these two ingredients well to achieve the umami flavor they’re renowned for is a delicate balancing act.

When is it time to saute garlic and should you saute onions and garlic together? Once you understand the alchemy of these two ingredients when combined, all will become clear. So let’s get down to business with the mysteries of onion and garlic and learn how to get the most from them both.

The Onion and Garlic Culinary Complex

Both onion and garlic are from the allium family of vegetables, which includes leeks, chives, and scallions. The word “allium” is derived from the Greek word for “garlic”. A casual look at related vegetables reveals a family of flavorful, pungent ingredients which give life to popular delicacies around the world with health benefits known from ancient times.

All members of this family contain natural sulfides, disulfides or trisulfides which are derivatives of sulfur. These chemical components account for not only the delightful scent they emit when cooked, but the stinging eyes you’ll sometimes experience when cutting onions. Sulfides from allium vegetables are released when they’re cut, revealing their true nature as flavor powerhouses. But the sulfide content of alliums is also responsible for their purported health benefits, as pointed out above. All that said, should we saute the garlic or the onion first? 

Who’s On First?

The start of any great meal is the foundation of the main course’s flavor profile. For the French that’s mirepoix (celery, carrot, and onion). For the Italians, it’s onion and garlic. This is where the flavor is born and to create that flavor, oil that’s been warmed in a pan should be the first to taste these two elements.

To maximize the flavor of these two crucial ingredients, cut both well ahead of time to release their sulfides (the source of their tang and bite). This gives any dish you’re cooking a more robust umami flavor. The oil you cook onion and garlic in becomes a medium of penetration and permeation for any meat or vegetable you introduce to the dish you’re creating. And with the sulfides of your two alliums released, the oil will be filled with flavor. So, when do you saute the garlic? Why, after the onion!

Onion is the first to go in the pan because it needs time to become translucent, meaning it’s cooked, which takes about 10 minutes. Garlic, on the other hand, cooks quickly and burns easily, so introduce it after the onion is cooked. Whether you smash it with a large kitchen knife and toss it in to be removed later or slice it, always be careful not to burn this delicate allium. This is a key tip to successfully saute garlic

As a general rule, wait to add the garlic until immediately before you add other ingredients like stock or meat, allowing it to mingle with the cooked onion to create the onion and garlic foundation of the flavor profile you’re building.

A Chef’s Eye View on Cooking Onion and Garlic
A Chef’s Eye View on Cooking Onion and Garlic

How to Cook Onion

The stem of the onion is tightly packed, the root at the other end, less so. Cut off the root, then stand the onion on the cut end, with the stem side up. Now slice the onion in half. 

If you’re caramelizing an onion (taking it to a thick, golden consistency, caused by the release of the vegetable’s sugars) cut your onion from root to stem (lengthwise.) Cutting it this way allows the strips of onion to hold their shape. Allow at least 10 minutes for it to cook, with the oil warm but not so hot it bubbles. Cut your onion crosswise if you want the pieces to fall apart during cooking or for use in a salad. Next, let’s talk about combining the onion and garlic and how to saute garlic without incinerating it.

How to Successfully Saute Garlic

Oil is the best medium to saute garlic in. Butter adds a delightful, rich flavor but can scorch quickly. Prevent scorching when using butter as a cooking medium by using a heavier pan or skillet, allowing even heat distribution.

The best culinary insider trick for achieving perfectly sauteed garlic is to start with oil in a cold pan. Once your garlic’s in there, turn on the heat. Give it 20 seconds. The oil will be heated and the garlic will begin to release its flavorful sulfides into the oil. Stir continuously until the garlic is a golden brown color. How long does that take? Your eyes will tell you. 

Now add the garlic to the onion, stirring over a low heat to allow the two flavors to combine. You can then begin adding your other ingredients. You have created the classic onion and garlic flavor foundation for numerous dishes!

A Chef’s Eye View on Cooking Onion and Garlic
A Chef’s Eye View on Cooking Onion and Garlic

Onion and Garlic Demystified!

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Published By Michael Casciello