Monday, July 23, 2012

How to Burn Onions.

In most kitchens, domestic or professional, a significant amount of the cook’s attention is directed towards avoiding a dish being burnt. To come across recipes in old cookery books which specifically instruct that something must be burnt therefore causes me a momentary frisson of discomfort. These recipes are not rare – a few have already found their way into this blog: Burnt Coffee, Eggs with Burnt Butter, and Burnt Cream (Crème Brulée), for example.

Of course, the word in this context most commonly means deeply and brownly caramelised not deeply blackly charred. Nevertheless, the word does (in my mind at least) sit rather uncomfortably in my culinary wordlist.

I came across another example of deliberate ‘burning’ recently, and want to share it with you. It is for something to use for browning your sauces.

Burnt Onions for Gravies.
Half a pound of onions, half a pint of water, half a pound of moist sugar, a third of a pint of vinegar. Pell and chop the onions fine, and put them in a stewpan (not tinned), with the water; let them boil for five minutes, then add the sugar, and simmer gently until the mixture becomes nearly black, and throws out bubbles of smoke. Have ready the above proportions of boiling vinegar, strain the liqor gradually to it, and keep stirring with a woooden spoon until it is well incorporated. When cold, bottle for use.
The New Dominion Monthly (Canada, 1870)

Here is another recipe for using your DIY gravy-browning:

Veal Collops.
Cut some slices from the upper part of the leg, and then prepare some grated bread seasoned with Cayenne pepper and salt. Rub the slices over with the yolk of egg, and then dip them in the bread-crumbs. Fry them in a stewpan in a small quantity of butter, until both sides are nicely browned; then place them on one side,
Prepare a gravy with a teacup-full of water, a small piece of butter rubbed in flour, half a dozen sprigs of parsley, some sweet herbs, two burnt onions, three cloves, and a little mushroom catsup. Let these simmer on a slow fire for half an hour, stirring occasionally. Strain through a common sieve, and in this sauce warm up the collops. Garnish with lemon.
The Magazine of Domestic Economy, and Family Review, Volume 1(1843)

It seems that in the nineteenth century, these “nearly black” onions were considered so useful that they were made commercially:

Burnt Onions or Black-onion Balls (to be bought of every good grocer or Italian warehouse), kept in wide-mouthed bottles, are indispensable on the sauce-shelf. They supply a savory, sightly, and wholesome means of browning a great variety of dishes.
Wholesome Fare; or, The Doctor and the Cook, by E.S. and E.J. Delamere (London, 1868)

Methinks that I should perhaps add this recipe to the ‘Extreme Kitchen DIY’ folder, Yes?
I think also that there will be a future post on alternative methods of browning your gravies, for it doesn’t always come down to onions.

Quotation for the Day.

Banish (the onion) from the kitchen and the pleasure flies with it. Its presence lends color and enchantment to the most modest dish; its absence reduces the rarest delicacy to hopeless insipidity, and dinner to despair.”
Elizabeth Robbins Pennell.


Piet said...

I have a great curiosity about recipes for mushroom catsup, walnut catsup, etc. Were these only commercial products or did home cooks prepare them?

Les said...

Bubbles of smoke or does she mean steaming? The recipe sounds good except for the smoking part?

Julia Balbilla said...

I love the 'burnt onions' for gravies recipe and will give it a go. As a vegetarian, I think this would make a brilliant gravy with red wine and possibly the rigt sort of balsamic vinegar. xx

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Piet: there are both home and commercial versions of most if not all of these preparations.
Les: the recipe is exactly as written; I suspect in this case, it means 'steaming' or boiling: i am sure blackened charred onions are not what are wanted - they would surely give a bitter taste? But this is one of the problems of studying old recipes - the instructions are not always clear!
Julia: if you try it, please let us know!

Les said...

Maybe these are very darkly caramelized onions. Adding the sugar would certainly darken them as it caramelizes. The recipe sounds very good. Thanks for finding and posting.

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