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What’s the difference between caramelized and sauteed onions?

Onions are a versatile vegetable that can be prepared in many different ways. Two common cooking methods for onions are caramelizing and sauteing. While both techniques involve cooking onions in oil or butter over medium-high heat, there are some key differences between caramelized and sauteed onions.

Caramelized Onions

Caramelizing onions is a low and slow cooking process that takes 30-60 minutes. It involves cooking sliced onions in oil or butter over medium-low heat. The sugars in the onions are slowly drawn out and caramelize, resulting in onions that are meltingly soft, sweet, and jammy.

Here are some key points about caramelized onions:

  • Takes a long time – usually 45-60 minutes.
  • Requires low heat – onions are cooked over medium-low.
  • Onions are sliced thinly.
  • No stirring is required once onions start releasing moisture.
  • Onions turn a deep brown color and become very soft.
  • Natural sugars are concentrated, so onions become sweet.
  • Adds a rich, sweet flavor to dishes.

Caramelized onions are ideal for:

  • French onion soup
  • Onion jam
  • Serving over steak, burgers, or sandwiches
  • Mixing into dips, spreads, and sauces
  • Adding to savory tarts, galettes, and quiches

Sauteed Onions

Sauteing is a quicker cooking method, usually taking 5-15 minutes. It involves cooking onions over medium-high to high heat while stirring frequently.

Here are some key points about sauteed onions:

  • Cooks relatively quickly – 5-15 minutes.
  • Requires higher heat – medium-high to high.
  • Onions can be sliced, diced, or julienned.
  • Frequent stirring is necessary.
  • Onions soften but still have some texture.
  • Natural sugars are lightly concentrated.
  • Adds an aromatic flavor to dishes.

Sauteed onions are ideal for:

  • Fajitas, stir fries, and other quick-cooking dishes
  • Pizza, pasta, and grains
  • Soups, stews, and chili
  • Omelets, scrambled eggs, and hash
  • Sauteing meats and vegetables


Here is a quick overview of the main differences between caramelized and sauteed onions:

Caramelized Onions Sauteed Onions
Cooks low and slow – 30-60 minutes Cooks quickly – 5-15 minutes
Requires medium-low heat Requires medium-high to high heat
No stirring needed Frequent stirring needed
Deep brown color Light golden to lightly browned
Very soft, jammy texture Still has some firmness
Very sweet, concentrated flavor Mild to moderately sweet flavor

Cooking Process

The cooking process is where the main differences between caramelized and sauteed onions lie. Caramelizing relies on low, slow heat to slowly draw out and concentrate the natural sugars in the onions. Sauteing uses quick, high heat to rapidly soften the onions while retaining some texture.

Flavor and Sweetness

Caramelized onions are intensely sweet and rich tasting due to their long, slow cook time. Sauteed onions have a milder, more balanced flavor since they cook more quickly. So caramelized onions add a sweetness and depth to dishes, while sauteed onions provide an aromatic onion flavor.


Caramelized onions end up meltingly soft and jam-like after an hour or more of cooking. Sauteed onions still retain some firmness and texture since they only cook briefly over high heat.


The different flavors and textures make caramelized and sauteed onions suited for different uses. Caramelized onions shine in dishes where their sweetness and soft texture are highlighted, like onion jam, French onion soup, and sandwiches. Sauteed onions work well in quicker cooking dishes like stir fries, pastas, and eggs where their texture stands up.

Choosing a Cooking Method

Here are some tips for deciding between caramelizing and sauteing onions:

  • Caramelize when a recipe calls for slowly cooked, deeply sweetened onions.
  • Saute when a quick cooking time works best.
  • Caramelize to top finished dishes that highlight the onions.
  • Saute as a flavorful aromatic base for other quick-cooked ingredients.
  • Caramelize to blend into dips, spreads, sauces.
  • Saute for egg dishes, stir fries, pastas.

In some cases, you may want to do both! Saute some onions at the start of cooking to create an aromatic foundation, then stir in some caramelized onions at the end for rich sweetness and texture.

Consider the time

Caramelized onions take significantly longer (30-60 minutes) compared to sauteed onions (5-15 minutes). Plan accordingly if the recipe calls for one or the other.

Factor in the flavor profile

Think about how sweet and rich you want the onions to taste. For maximum sweetness and depth of flavor, caramelize them. For a more balanced onion flavor, saute.

Texture preferences

If you want meltingly soft onions, caramelize them. If you want them to retain some texture and bite, saute them instead.

Consider the final dish

Caramelized onions work best in dishes where their flavor and texture can stand out, like on top of burgers or steak. For dishes with many other ingredients like stir fries, pastas, or egg scrambles, sauteed onions are usually a better fit.

How to Caramelize Onions

Here is a simple recipe and method for caramelizing onions:


  • 3 large yellow or white onions, sliced thinly
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Slice the onions thinly. The thinner they are, the faster they will cook.
  2. Heat the olive oil or butter over medium-low heat in a large skillet. Add the onions and a pinch of salt.
  3. Cook the onions slowly, stirring occasionally, until they start to soften and become translucent, about 10 minutes.
  4. Reduce the heat to low. Continue cooking the onions, without stirring, for 30-45 minutes until deeply browned and caramelized.
  5. Once the onions are fully caramelized, remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper.

The onions will reduce significantly in volume and turn a rich, dark brown color as they caramelize. Their natural sugars concentrate and become sweeter. Use the caramelized onions to top burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, and more!

How to Saute Onions

This easy technique gives you lightly browned, aromatically sauteed onions in just 10-15 minutes.


  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil or butter
  • 1 large onion, diced or thinly sliced
  • Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Heat the olive oil or butter over medium-high heat.
  2. Add the onions and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring frequently, for 5-7 minutes until starting to soften.
  3. Continue cooking for 5-10 more minutes, stirring often, until browned and tender but not mushy.
  4. Remove from heat. Season with more salt and pepper as desired.

The onions will take on a lightly golden brown color and have a tender-crisp texture. Use sauteed onions as a flavorful aromatic base for curries, chili, omelets, pasta sauce, and more.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you caramelize onions in less time?

Onions can be caramelized in less time at higher heat, but the flavor and texture will be somewhat compromised. For best results, keep the heat low and allow 30-60 minutes cooking time for fully caramelized onions.

Should onions be covered when caramelizing?

No, onions should not be covered when caramelizing. Keeping them uncovered allows moisture to evaporate and speeds up the caramelization process. Covering them will cause them to steam and take longer to caramelize.

What type of pan is best for caramelizing onions?

A heavy-based stainless steel or cast iron skillet works best. The heavy pan prevents burning or scorching the onions. Nonstick pans can work as well but may take a bit longer.

Can onions be caramelized in the oven?

Yes, onions can be caramelized in the oven by cooking them in a covered dish at 275°F to 300°F for 45 minutes to 1 hour, removing the lid for the last 15 minutes. Stirring occasionally will help them cook evenly.

Can I freeze caramelized onions?

Absolutely! Caramelized onions freeze very well for up to 3 months. Cool them completely before freezing in an airtight container. Thaw in the fridge before using in recipes.

Should sauteed onions be covered?

Sauteed onions should not be covered, as covering them will cause them to steam rather than brown. Keep the pan uncovered as you saute the onions over high heat.

When should onions be sauteed during cooking?

Onions are usually sauteed early in the cooking process to provide an aromatic flavor base for the rest of the ingredients. Saute them just before adding any liquids to the pan.


While caramelized and sauteed onions are both delicious, their differences in flavor, texture, and ideal uses make them suited for different recipes and techniques. Caramelized onions provide deep sweetness and richness perfect for finishing dishes, while sauteed onions offer aromatic flavor and texture to enhance many quick-cooked meals. Consider the dish and your preferences in choosing which version works best.