The allure of the Instant Pot is that it enables you to speed up cooking times. Yes, it’s also a slow-cooker and a rice cooker and all that, but the “instant” portion of the Instant Pot is its selling point. A couple weeks ago, I wondered if the device couldn’t help me cut the preparation of one of my most maddeningly time-consuming of foods: caramelized onions.
The standard, stovetop caramelized onion recipes you’ll read are—in my experience—lies. Just 30-40 minutes, they say. An hour into it, and I’m barely getting some browning on the edges of mine. Turn the heat up to speed it up, and the onion singe.
Surely, the Instant Pot can help?
It can, but it’s not as easy as I thought it would be. I had read the cautionary tales and the less-than-enthusiastic website comments about Instant Pot caramelized onions, but I figured I just had to find the right method. Theoretically, sautéeing the onions on the sauté function and then quickly pressure cooking them would yield good results. That’s the basic method put forth by no less than J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats’ The Food Lab, so I gave it a shot.
No dice. I was left with flavorless onion mush. It was a fine onion jam, maybe, if I added vinegar and sugar and seasonings, but on its own, it was un-caramelized and gloppy. I reached out to Lopez-Alt: Where had I gone wrong? He told The Takeout there’s a chance the Instant Pot doesn’t get as hot as his stovetop pressure-cooker, which could be one explanation. He asked whether I’d tried a method using canning jars inside the Instant Pot. I hadn’t, but I found a version of it online.
It’s not entirely hands-off, but it took much less time than a stovetop method (only 40 minutes total, and I mean that). I sliced two onions and tossed them with two grams of baking soda to hasten browning, then divided the onions between two canning jars. I dropped a small pat of butter in each and loosely sealed the jars. After adding a half-cup of water to the Instant Pot to enable it to pressurize, I placed the jars in, and set the Instant Pot to high pressure for 20 minutes.
I then manually released the steam and—with potholders—removed the jars to the sink and ran cold water over them. Once they cooled enough for me to get the lids off, I dumped the onions in a cast-iron and finished browning them for 10 minutes. Good sweetness, good caramelization, no singeing. Forty minutes. I nailed it. My only improvement next time would be to chop up more than two onions so I could have multiple meals’ worth, because caramelized onions go with everything.