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photoshop and lies: waistlines and caramelized onions

Posted by on Sep 18, 2012 in Blog Posts | 27 comments

Dear aspiring family cooks,

Caramelizing onions, you know, that deep brown, sweet, gorgeous onion you see in so many photos with recipes TAKES A LONG TIME. And yet, recipe after recipe I read and try shows the golden onions, with a cook time of 8-10 minutes. The most egregious offender I tried was a dish where raw onions were placed in the oven with chicken and cooked, coming out golden and caramelized in the photos, but looking like limp pale mush on my plate and tasting even worse. I didn’t believe that my favorite cooking magazine would lie, I even increased the cooking time by about a third. But, there you have it. (Apparently others have noticed this trend, even in recipes from the NYT. From the linked article: Here, telling the truth about how to prepare onions for French onion soup, is Julia Child: “[C]ook slowly until tender and translucent, about 10 minutes. Blend in the salt and sugar, raise heat to moderately high, and let the onions brown, stirring frequently until they are a dark walnut color, 25 to 30 minutes.” Ten minutes plus 25 to 30 minutes equals 35 to 40 minutes. )

I’m upset about this because it links back to my last post about having fun and experimenting in the kitchen and not being afraid to fail. The most recent spate of recipes I’ve found under-estimating cooking times and other errors,Β  have come from national women’s magazines (I can’t remember which one, I buy a stack at the airport and tear out recipes.) It bugs me because you can do everything “right” and be guaranteed to fail. Where’s the fun in that?Β  Seasoned cooks may know better, but beginner cooks don’t, and these recipes are often aimed at beginner cooks,Β  almost always from a quick, or 30 minute meal section. They say they are simple, you can come home from work and have golden brown onions and a family dinner from scratch in 30 minutes! It’s almost as bad as the diet and fitness articles that show the airbrushed model who works out 3 hours a day next to an article for “flat abs in five minutes.”

It’s impossible, it won’t happen, and we moms and women get snookered. “Why don’t my abs look like that?” “Why is this meal gross, my family won’t eat it, heck, I won’t eat it, the magazine said it was simple! I can’t cook!” We fail, yet again. We give up and stop exercising because it doesn’t “work” or we stop trying to cook because when we do try it never turns out right.

I wish the magazines would be honestβ€” about bodies, weight, exercise, and how long it takes to get a complex recipe on the table, from start to finish, including prep time, with REAL cooking times, with the average home cook, not a line-cook who can dice carrots in 30 seconds.

I wish that high-schoolers were taught some simple dishes in school (click on the link to add the ten things you think should be taught in school). I consider it a life skill. I remember learning to balance my check book in school, something I never do, but I have to feed myself and my family every-darn-day. I wish that instead of lecturing teens about fat and calories, we would take the time to teach them to make a home-made spaghetti sauce, a bean chili, or a soup from scratch. I wish that cooking shows were more honest, that recipes were real. I wish that the show, “Worst Cooks in America” didn’t expect gourmet five-course meals, but taught real people how to cook real food for their families.

P.S, my favorite learn-to-cook resource is Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family (Satter) starting with boiling pasta, pantry stocking, and 4 ingredient meals…

How did you learn to cook? What have been your favorite resources? For a total newbie in the kitchen, how would you suggest they gain skills? What are the most egregious recipe fails you’ve experienced?


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  1. inge

    Hit “post” too soon…

    I learned how to cook by reading cookbooks with the obsession of the eternally dieting as a teen. (My mother bought them with the same obsession.) When I got my own place and my own kitchen, I felt comfortable enough with cooking to just go ahead and experiment, and I had a good idea about what was supposed to be working how and what I could try for what effect. Getting from knowledge alone to skill took some years, and I am still learning, but I could feed a bunch of hungry students from whatever could be found in the fridge I was twenty.

  2. inge


    I regulary get into incredibly annoying discussions on a cooking forom, where I say about some recipe I posted, “this dish takes about one hour to prepare, not good for dinner after a long work day” and everyone else wants to prove they can do it in twenty minutes. I admit that I am not setting any world records in onion peeling, but getting the food to just the right point without burning it takes its own time. (I tried to fast-forward onions and ended up with a *black* sticky mess…)

  3. cecile

    You should check out jamie Oliver’s Meals in minutes. It’s not really minutes, like 5 minutes, but every step is detailed and in order to make a complete meal. I love it. OK, I love Jamie ! I only recently discovered slow-cookers (I know.), and I think it’s a great way to save time, too. I’ll check that book you’re talking about, sounds nice. My problem is more on the “what will I make” line, I love cooking and I’m not usually bothered by that, but sometimes I just need ideas that don’t require weird ingredients that I don’t have on hand.
    Katja, your spam protection system is really hard to get through, I had to repost that comment 4 or 5 times before it was accepted.

    • katja

      I tried to fix the spam system, will you let me know? I liked Oliver’s cooking show, will check out his book, but I find it hard to love him now that he’s on the anti-obesity band-wagon. I love 95% of what he does and stands for, but that 5% is hard…

      • jessidehl

        His fat-hate rampage has ruined him for me forever. πŸ™ The nuts and bolts of what he’s going for–fresh foods instead of processed foods–is so appealing but I just can’t accept the ALARM! FAT PEOPLE ARE HORRIBLE!! wrapping.

  4. Camilla

    If you have an example recipe with this problem, I’d follow along with a stopwatch (provided it’s something I can eat). I think it’s just that the pros test them on a powerful stove, thick pans, and aren’t afraid to crank the heat. (I have no such problems.)

    Mise-en-place isn’t for suckers; if the ingredients are prepped, and you’re not busy slicing things, you can watch the pan more closely and brown things without burning them much faster.

  5. Mickey

    A lot of recipes I read or cook from say something to the effect of “Saute the onions on medium until translucent, 2 minutes.” My onions are NEVER translucent in 2 min – or even 5 min. Ten min seems to be the time on my stove in my preferred pans. Yes, I can turn up the heat, but then the onions get brown/burned, not translucent.

    Thank goodness I have been cooking long enough to know how to adjust for things like that. And to adjust the amount of other seasonings that are usually asked for. How do people who are novices do that? Especially novices who don’t have a seasoned (pun fully intended) cook in their kitchens?

    • katja

      yes, yes and yes! translucent onions is not 1-2 minutes… I wish more people talked about this when people complain how little Americans “cook”

  6. Heather

    I initially learned to cook from my mom, probably just watching and hanging out with her at first and over time doing more and more of the cooking. When I was in junior high, I would get dinner ready for the family maybe once a week while my mom was at work. By the time I lived on my own I had a solid foundation of basic cooking. In grad school I had a roommate who was also really interested in food and vegetarian cooking and we made a lot of great meals together and learned different techniques from each other.

    I hope to do the same for my son, a long gradual introduction , though I have to admit that at 6 he’s still not that interested in it, so I try to involve him a little bit but not push it. He is learning to read recipes – he’s most interested in baking, where there might be a chance of some spilled sugar on the counter he can dip a finger into, or perhaps a few chocolate chips or raisins πŸ™‚ He participates (to a small extent) in our weekly meal planning, since that usually happens over breakfast on Sunday and he can be a good helper at the grocery store.

    • katja

      Beautiful! I love that baking will be the way in for him πŸ™‚ I didn’t have any interest until I was on my own and realized if I wanted to eat well, I’d need to learn how to cook. Learned to cook with my mom, but not as a child πŸ™‚ So good you’re not pushing it.

  7. Twistie

    I got so lucky on this. Not only were both my parents really good in the kitchen, they both taught me to cook different things. My father taught me about cookies, my mother about bread and general plain cooking. Both took a hand when it came to pies and cakes. In addition to that, my mother had a huge and varied library of cookbooks that I was free to read and cook from as the whim moved me. So my culinary schooling came from a combination of two talented parents and every cooking expert from Julia Child to Betty Crocker and from Mrs. Beeton to James Beard.

    I learned early on that the fastest way to cooking disaster is to rush things in the kitchen. Everything cooks in its own time and trying to make it happen faster only leads to burnt pans that are impossible to clean, cut fingers, and really unpleasant dining experiences.

    As far as I’m concerned, anyone who says onions can be caramelized in ten minutes deserves to be fed the blackened results of frustrated untrained cooks attempting to make that actually happen by turning the burner higher and higher until the ‘super quick; cooking school mavens recant and come back to the light… assuming they’d ever been in it in the first place.

    I believe that even the Mikado would agree that punishment fits the crime, though he would lament the lack of boiling in oil.

    There are good foods that cook quickly, but good food cannot be rushed. I really wish all the ‘instant gourmet food’ recipe writers would understand that fact and stop lying to home cooks. Unfortunately, the magazines of which you speak are so mired in hype and oversimplification on most subjects that I’m guessing most of them don’t understand that basic fact.

    They know that caramelized onions are popular right now, and they know a lot of the women who buy their magazines are juggling work, home, kids, social lives, and a dozen other things and need quick recipes, so they hire someone to write how quick and easy it is to do something in ten minutes that takes an hour to do properly. The worst of it is I don’t think they even notice the dichotomy, let alone hire anyone who dares to point out basic facts to write the recipe. And because the magazines all claim that the impossible is as easy as snapping your fingers, countless new cooks go into the kitchen, fail miserably because they don’t have all the information they need, blame themselves, and revert to convenience foods because they never do believe they can learn to cook.

    It’s sort of like trying to teach kids how to do math while leaving out all the fours and sevens. Eventually you’re going to need those numerals, and being unable to do without them, well, one might quickly come to the conclusion that this adding and subtracting thing is impossible to learn.

    • katja

      Nice analogy. Your story about rushing things and then spoiling it, reminded me about supporting selective eaters around learning to like new foods. You can’t speed up the process much, and the more you try, usually the worse it gets. But, there is a lot you can do to support the process πŸ™‚

  8. Zahra

    You are right about cooking times, and heat levels when cooking on stovetop. I usually assume that the authors had access to a gas stovetop, which usually runs hotter at lower temperature than my humble electric coil stovetop. So a med-low becomes a medium, a medium a med-high and a med-high a high (and high stays high because there’s nowhere to go higher).

    Also, a few tricks for caramelized onions: you can prepare them ahead of time, freeze them in small batches and reheat them in whatever recipe you need. So you spend that hour cooking them only once every so often, but you get to use them much more often.

    Onions that caramelize well are the sweetest ones. It’s the sugar in the onions that gives them that burnished color. Don’t use your regular yellow onions for caramelized onions recipes. Take the time and trouble to buy the huge Vidalia onions. And use the mandoline if you want to cut them faster than by hand πŸ˜›

  9. Elizabeth

    I love Ellyn Satter, but the Spaghetti Carbonara recipe in Secrets is vile. No one in my family could eat it, and we ended up throwing the whole thing away.

    I just typed a long comment about other recipes, and your comment form ate it. It said I didn’t retype the password correctly, even though I copied and pasted it. I’ll see if I can regenerate it later. How much spam protection do you need, and does it really need to be on the commenters to provide all of it?

    • Elizabeth

      I used to be a regular at Dream Dinners, which actually did help me have food that I could get on the table in 20-30 minutes. Unfortunately, the location near me closed, but now I do as much cooking as possible the same way. My latest successful experiment was this recipe – I made a big batch up through reducing the cider with the onions and apples, then divided it up to freeze. (The sausage is stil separate at this point and is in a different bag – this lets me save some out of the sauce for the kid who won’t eat it with cream on it.) I simmer it with cream while I make the pasta, and I actually can get everything on the table in 15 minutes.

      You can also caramelize a huge pile of onions in the oven on a Sunday afternoon (it takes a couple of hours to get them right), then freeze them for later use. (By “huge pile” I mean 5-10 pounds.) Cut them up and dump them in a big pan, and drizzle with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Bake at 400 F or so, stirring every 30 min at first, going down to every 15 min once they start to brown. Do it on a day when you can use a fan to keep the air moving through the kitchen, because your house will stink big-time. But it makes lots of caramelized onions, which you can freeze in Ziplock bags and use as needed in recipes, on hamburgers, etc. I love them in omelets with cream cheese.

    • katja

      Hmm, thanks, I had no idea! I often just reply on my window and have never been asked for security, but I’ll look into it! SOOO frustrating, and I’m really sorry… I didn’t like the carbonara either, I have to admit. Not sure I got it right though. I did get extra protection when I got spammed by literally thousands of spams a day… Please don’t let it scare you off! I also just got this new website, so some of the links may be off…

  10. TropicalChrome

    Thank you SO much for this post! This is why I can’t even watch Rachael Ray’s “30 Minute Meals” without screaming – yes, 30 minutes if everything is defrosted, the oven is preheated, the vegetables are peeled, all the cooking pans and implements are out and available….to me, a “30 minute meal” means “30 minutes from the moment I step into the kitchen and turn on the oven and take something out to defrost” – most of her meals are at least 50 minutes to an hour with that criteria.

    This isn’t to say there aren’t 30 minute meals that meet my criteria – there are and they’re good – but they don’t include things like baking (maybe running under the broiler) or caramelized onions.

    And yes about the caramelized onions – 8-10 minutes is for sauteed onions, which can be very good, but are not the same thing.

    I taught myself to cook. My favorite cookbook is still “The Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook” because there is a picture of every single recipe in it. Beginning cooks often don’t know what dishes are supposed to look like when they’re done. I found it a great help to be able to see what I was aiming for. It’s still my go-to book for many recipes.

    • katja

      Love this! Thanks! Do the photos match the finished product? Not like the ones I was talking about πŸ™‚

      • TropicalChrome

        Yes, they do. My theory is it’s because they’re not trying to sell you something – if you have the cookbook, you’ve already bought the product πŸ™‚ Food magazines are the worst – one recent recipe in Food and Wine clearly stated that the butternut squash should be halved vertically, then sliced….but the picture of the roasting squash showed rings. (It did turn out to be a great recipe anyway.)

        The other thing I look for in food magazine pictures is if the plating matches the stated “number of servings” (which is a crock anyway – how many it serves depends on SO many things, like how hungry is the crowd and what else are you serving with it). Many times the plated picture clearly has more than one serving in it.

        • TropicalChrome

          I forgot to mention: there are two editions of that cookbook that I found, I’ve made the recipes that are pictured on each cover, and yes, that is what they look like. (And no, I’m not associated with them at all, it’s just a book I love and almost 30 years later I still cook from.)

  11. Bobbini

    I often recommend “How To Cook Everything” by Mark Bittman–it’s a great introduction to cooking, and even though it looks dauntingly large, Bittman covers the basics of cooking, and offers recipes and variations. His approach is simple and quick. I especially like the iphone app that he has, since it lets me search by ingredients, techniques, etc. It’s a great resource for inexperienced cooks looking for weeknight meals. (I ignore Bittman’s opinion columns now that he’s writing more about the obesity epidemic. Apparently finger-wagging is a great way to burn calories.)

  12. calantheliadon

    You are so right about timings being wrong in most magazine recipes! Usually things take far longer than the recipe suggests, which can be awful to deal with when you just want to have something good to eat after a day at work.

    I’m lucky to have been cooking since I was really young with my mother who loves to cook. I learned so many things from watching her cook, even if I didn’t (wouldn’t) eat them at the time. I have a base knowledge that allows me to adjust for things like the way my oven or stove-top elements work, or how hot my cast iron pan gets, so if something is cooking too fast or too slow, I can work with it.

    I actually did learn to make chili in a cooking class in school. Also things like scones, muffins, pancakes, cookies, and my favorite, from a cooking class in the UK when I was 11, cheese, onion and potato pie. Virtually everything else I learned from my mother.

    I love this blog even though I’m not a parent, and I’ve got several new favorite recipes from here that are fantastic additions to my recipe box. Thank you!

    • katja

      Wonder what those are?? Even though I “know” better, sometimes I get suckered in. Recently, a recipe for cucumber salad called for a cup of sliced red onions, though the picture showed a sprinkling… sigh. I pity folks who are trying to learn from recipes like that…