Caramelised Onions Without Balsamic Vinegar or Sugar Recipe

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If I’m going to be frank, I’ve never even considered using cheats or shortcuts when it comes to caramelising onions and have always made caramelised onions without balsamic vinegar or added sugar.

I assume shortcuts like balsamic are added to give the illusion of a dark, caramelised colour and sugar can be added to speed up the process, but both additions won’t give you the delicious results that time and patience can if you simply caramelise onions the traditional way.

Onions have quite a lot of sugar in them and the process of caramelising them is not dissimilar to the chemical process in making caramel candies – such as peanut brittle or chewy salted caramels. However, in this process, we are simply relying on the onion’s natural sugars to be drawn out and caramelised until the onions transform into something truly magical.

You can use these caramelised onions without sugar or balsamic vinegar in something like French onion soup, as an addition to classic onion dip or as a topping for any array of different things. Though the process can take some time, it is well worth it and super delicious.

Caramelised Onions (No Balsamic Vinegar or Sugar)
Caramelised Onions (No Balsamic Vinegar or Sugar)

How to Caramelise Onions without Balsamic Vinegar or Sugar

At its heart, this caramelised onion recipe only uses 3 ingredients – onions, butter and a bit of salt. There are no additions, no shortcuts and no cheats.

When making these, ensure that you’ve set aside enough time to do it, however, don’t expect it to be complicated. It’s very easy to caramelise onions, you just need to be patient!

Key ingredients to caramelise onions
Key ingredients to caramelise onions

Know that, from start to finish, this will take about an hour. I’ve made caramelised onions countless times and I’ve never been able to get to the stage I desire (meaning that the onions are a delicious deep amber colour) without it taking, at the very least, 45 minutes.

With that in mind, let’s talk about how to caramelise onions without sugar or balsamic vinegar!

Slicing the onions
Slicing the onions

Start with a large saucepan. You can hypothetically use any kind of saucepan you’d like here, but generally using an untreated cast iron pan (so not enamelled) or a stainless steel pan works best. Other kinds of pans like nonstick will likely add to your overall cook time.

It’s best to use a pan with a lid. Don’t worry if you don’t have either of these kinds of pans because you will still be able to get great results – it just may take slightly longer.

Adding the raw onions to a pan
Adding the raw onions to a pan

Melt some butter in your pan over medium-low heat. You can use olive oil here or even a mixture of the two, I just personally like the flavour that butter lends to caramelised onions so opt for that.

Once the butter is melted and foamy, add your sliced onions to the pot along with a generous pinch of salt.

Cover the pot with a lid and cook, covered (but stirring occasionally just to ensure nothing is burning) until the onions have released a good amount of their moisture, have softened and have decreased in size by about half. This should take about 20-30 minutes.

Onions after cooking for 20-30 minutes
Onions after cooking covered for 20-30 minutes

Then, uncover the pot. At this point, there should be any browning taking place around the edges of the onions, but you may have noticed that the onions have taken on a bit of uniform pale colour – this is the caramelisation process beginning!

Cook, uncovered and stirring frequently, as the onions begin to take on more colour. The goal here is caramelisation, not browning, which are two different things.

Onions beginning to get some brown colour
Onions beginning to get some brown colour

You can notice the difference as caramelisation will be uniform and consistent across all of your onions and browning will happen in patches or along the edges.

If you notice any browning or burning, simply add a few splashes of water to halt this process. Contrary to some popular beliefs found on the internet, adding water does not speed up the process.

Onions browning in patches
Onions taking on some caramelisation, about 40 minutes in

It simply will halt any Maillard browning (which happens in the absence of moisture) to prevent this from interfering with the caramelisation process.

You will notice your onions go from a pale honey colour after about ten minutes from removing the lid, to a medium golden colour, to deep gold, to amber over the course of about twenty to thirty more minutes.

Onions are almost caramelised
Onions are almost caramelised

I, personally, like my onions to be deeply dark and caramelised so I recommend taking them to quite a deep amber colour. This will take about thirty minutes more once you remove the lid.

Caramalised onions ready to use
Caramelised onions ready to use

Once your onions have reached their desired stage, remove them from the pot to prevent them from caramelising any further. Then, you can use them in any application you should choose!

Caramelised Onions (No Balsamic Vinegar or Sugar)

Caramelised Onions Without Balsamic Vinegar or Sugar

Yield: 200g Caramelised Onions
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 5 minutes

These classic caramelised take time and patience, but the technique is easy and the results are 100% worth it!


  • 25g (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
  • 4 large yellow onions, sliced thin
  • Pinch salt


  1. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan for which you have a lid (preferably stainless steel or unfinished cast iron), melt the butter over medium-low heat. Once the butter is melted and getting foamy, add all of the sliced onions along with a generous pinch of salt.
  2. Cover the pot with a lid and allow the onions to release their moisture. Keep the pot covered, checking occasionally and stirring to prevent browning, until the onions have reduced in size by about half - about 20-30 minutes.
  3. Remove the lid and cook, stirring occasionally to ensure there is no browning or burning, until the onions soften completely and begin to take on a uniform brown colour - about 20 more minutes. This will happen very gradually. If you notice some onions browning around the edges or any fond is collecting on the bottom of the pan, add a few splashes of cold water to prevent burning.
  4. Cook the onions, stirring frequently and adding more water as needed, until they are a uniform dark amber colour, about another 10-15 minutes. Remove from the heat and serve.
Nutrition Information:
Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 67Total Fat: 4gSaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 1gCholesterol: 9mgSodium: 25mgCarbohydrates: 9gFiber: 1gSugar: 4gProtein: 1g

Nutritional information is automatically generated and provided as guidance only. Accuracy is not guaranteed.

Making caramelised onions without balsamic vinegar and sugar takes some time but it is an easy and rewarding process that is 100% worth it.

Do you want to make caramelised onions? Have any questions about this recipe or the process? Let me know in the comments!

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Maggie is the creator behind No Frills Kitchen. She is a world traveller, home cook and recipe developer who loves to experiment with new cuisines and techniques at every chance she gets. No stranger to improvising and making do with the equipment and ingredients she has available, she is passionate about sharing her knowledge with others. Read More

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