If you are looking for a quick short but detailed recipe on a gold platter, wrong house, sorry. You can stay, please do by all means, but I warn: I try more and more to empower people’s sense of self-determination: thinking, finding, deciding things for themselves. You might think “Yeah I love that!”, sure. What that also means is no more detailed “straight-to-the-point” recipes for you, because that falls under spoon-feeding. Okay…maybe I will still write recipes, but that’s not what I want to do here.
This article will display one instance of the process of problem solving. Although you will find cues to make it yourself if you search or try, my point here is to write an article about food innovation, problem solving and advocacy.
A recipe is always the final result of some exploration. It’s the exploration I want to share, and want you to experience for yourself, more than just telling what I found. In other words, life is sculpting, not the sculpture. The relationship I’m comfortable having with you is one where you allow me to respect your potential, intellect, curiosity and sense of self-determination.
There are two ways of solving problems creatively: incrementally, and with a leap.
Incrementally, to solve the problem of caramelising onions without oil, you’d replace oil by added water. One increment further, you would try with no water at all and count on the water in the onions or whatever veggie you are “stir-frying”.
It works, but an avid user of onions, this method gave me some challenges after doing a lot of it: it took too much active time for my liking, involved a lot of stirring and adding water. The result is amazing caramelised onions, but I wondered “Can we do better?”.
Also, I had been chatting with restaurant owners that simply explained to me that oil is used primarily for convenience more than taste. After all, oil is capable of heating up to about 200°C, and because it’s liquid, that “liquid pan” can get anywhere on and in the food and help cook it faster. Recipes talking about caramelising onions typically take about 5 to 10 minutes. So OK, cooks want to get meals ready fast for their hungry customers I totally get that. Now “Can I find something that gives them that convenience and taste, AND at the same time, does not use oil and therefore results in the low-fat foods that prevent the much unnecessary heart disease?“
Thinking a bit less incrementally lead to method #2. Now we’re getting the same thing, not doing the same thing.
My strategy was the following, really just using common sense, and more importantly, acting on it. One action leads to a question, that question leads to another action, and so on until you find a way. It pays off almost every single time, not in one try, but overall.
This is how I posed the problem of solving bulk onion caramelizing.
- People like onions caramelised, We must give them onions caramelised.
- The method must not include added fat of any kind
- The process must be simple, convenient, easy.
Some question were inescapable:
“Why do caramelised onions taste like caramelised onions?”
Answer: Because they are caramelised?
“What exactly does “caramelising” mean anyway?”
When sugars (not just the extracted/processed ones, even those in whole foods) are exposed to certain temperatures, for certain amounts of time, eventually caramelisation takes place. It changes the way the sugars naturally present in food taste.
“Oh ok…so what are these temperatures then?”
Well since it’s oil we’re trying to replace, how hot does the oil get when it touches the food we caramelise? I ask you, I know the answer. Do search it you will need it to solve a puzzle later.
Now that you have this number in mind, be ready for an epiphany: solving this puzzle. should give you a wonderful idea.
The result of that idea is this :
“Uh…baked onions already exist, aren’t you re-inventing the wheel?”
True. Baked onions exist. I found out only after, and actually I’m glad I didn’t know about them, it could have held me back, it’s easy *not* to transcend the things we know exist.
Blank sheet of paper, let’s go!
I worked towards something that already exists, putting onions in an oven, whole. Sure…
The novelty here, if any, is not to use this process not to make an oil-free version of baked onions, but as a means to mass produce oil-free caramelized onion. That’s relevant.
In fact, I am happy baked onions already exist! Because if the concept is known to people, I can use that to introduce “baked onions”, only oil-free + as an *ingredient* for anything that needs caramelised onions!
I’d care little even if someone “invented” that use before me (wouldn’t be surprised + don’t care). What I do care about is that things like this *be used* to make people’s lives better. It does not matter who invents what solution. There are more solutions already available than people willing to search and implement them. In order to do some good justice to these solutions, we can’t tell people “just do this, trust me, it will solve your problem”. if a solution was found by thinking for ourselves, that’s the spirit that needs to be spread, not just the solution itself. A lot of the problems we seek to help others solve exist primarily because people are used to spoon-feeding in the first place. Spoon-feeding is what allowed for instance the meat and dairy industry to shove their hazardous products in people’s mouths along with the beliefs that it’s good for us.
The same way you don’t solve violence with violence, you don’t solve the ill-intended spoon-feeding with well-meaning spoon-feeding. Spoon-feeding in itself, is the root problem.
Also, it’s not enough to generate solutions and be critical enough to be able to discriminate the good from the bad ones, we need to individually research solutions, create solutions and most importantly share solutions.
As you can see I intentionally take time to lay down in great detail one “textbook case” of the process that led me to this way of mass-producing caramelized onions and therefore solving an important problem I was facing.
I did not give you the two-line recipe, because I care more about the readers learning to use fully their same brain as mine, in ways that find solutions to their problems. If I can do it, surely anyone can.
“Isn’t oven-caramelising onions a big waste of electric energy?“
Well, relatively? Short answer is “No, far from it!”
A regular oven first comfortably one to two trays, at ~15 medium onions per tray. That’s roughly one to two hours (likely, cooking time increases with quantity) for 15 to 30 caramelised onions.
Prior to that I had spent 20 minutes, on medium heat. Slaving over that pot as well, so that was 20 minutes of *my time* too.
Do the maths. My guesstimation right now favours, a lower financial cost than with oil (medical costs included) and all oil-free methods compared: definitely less active human time, and quite possibly less processing energy (electricity, gas, etc). Any objections? Anyone got better? If you have either, please do share. I will be the first trying, using it, and telling people about it!
“I am not much of a reader, and I just realised I had to go through all of this article when you could have just said – Whole onions in oven caramelize – 5 words, boom!”
Again, wrong address, sorry. If it takes a slow reader 15 minutes to read this, I had to go through many, many hours of caramelizing small amounts of onions with sub-optimal, slave-over-the-pot, non-scalable methods, until I got to this. The best possible solutions to complex problems are virtually always of a humiliatingly simple nature. In hindsight it’s always trivial. But this is the truth: complicated incremental solutions can already be difficult to find and require some creativity. Finding simple solutions is actually far more difficult, you will see when you try if you haven’t tried already. And what’s even more difficult than this, is teaching that kind of problem solving, instead of teaching the solutions.