The Scientific Way Baking Soda Helps Caramelized Onions Cook Faster

There are a myriad of reasons why you might want to caramelize some onions and chances are they're all delicious reasons. Whether you're making caramelized onion dip, onion jam, or French onion soup, caramelized onions add a decadent Umami flavor that is hard to beat. They're silky, sweet, and savory all at once and they smell incredible while they're cooking.

According to Serious Eats, caramelizing onions releases the natural sugars in them which mellow out their sharp flavor. When comparing caramelized onions to raw onions, they taste like two completely different vegetables. In order to pull the natural sugars out of the onions, however, they must be cooked low and slow.

The hang up, therefore, when caramelizing onions is that it takes so dang long. According to Love & Lemons it takes a minimum of 45 minutes to caramelize onions, but can take up to an hour depending on how caramelized you want them. If that seems like too long, try this hack that can speed up the process.

The baking soda speeds up the Maillard reaction

According to cookbook author and food writer Kenji López-Alt, you can speed up the process of caramelizing onions by adding a pinch of baking soda (via Serious Eats). Is he a mad scientist? Or culinary genius? López-Alt says that if you raise the temperature too high when caramelizing onions you'll end up with burnt onions. So unless that's the goal for flavor-purposes, low and slow is the only way to go.

He notes that pH is one thing you can control and that speeds up the Maillard reaction, which influences how fast something caramelizes or browns. In order to shift the pH of your onions as they caramelize, López-Alt recommends adding no more than 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda per pound of onions you're cooking. If you decide you must raise the heat, López-Alt notes that you can add a bit of water to disperse the temperature so you onions won't burn. 

So, next time you're planning to caramelize some onions, don't forget to grab the baking soda out of the fridge or pantry.