Submitted by Lauren Bull on
by Lauren Bull, CKC Writer
The secret? Plain ol' water.
The kind of cooking tip or trick I value most is the kind that's simplicity makes me feel embarrassed when I hear it. As much as I enjoy reading buzzy, shareable tricks like shaking a head of garlic between two bowls to release the cloves, or cubing an avocado in its skin, those aren't changing anything foundationally. I'll get the cloves out; the avocado will be cut, somehow.
I remember the first time I heard Mario Batali say to think of sauce as a condiment for pasta—that it should be applied the same way you'd put dressing on a salad. That simple tip changed something for me. Imagining spaghetti strands as lettuce leaves demands a different approach.
My favorite of these types of tricks involves something at the heart of so many dishes—sautéing onions. Onions are often put in the pan first in a recipe as a way to build layers of flavor. The only issue? Many recipes say something like this:
"Sweat the onions, but don't brown them."
"Cook the onions until translucent."
"NEVER TAKE YOUR EYES OFF THE ONIONS, SUSAN!"
These are nice thoughts, but the fact of the matter is, when you're juggling prep in a small apartment and regulating heat on a stove from 1995, those precious thirty seconds between sweaty and brown, and the next thirty seconds between brown and burnt, can slip away unwatched.
One day, as I was watching a Jacques Pépin video, the chef addressed this issue head on. To slow down the process, he said, simply add a few tablespoons of water to the pan with the onions and cover it for a minute. This works for two reasons, he explained. First, the moisture and steam will soften the onions while stopping the browning. Second, when you remove the lid, the water will have burned off, and you can continue sautéing until the onions are dry again. Of course, wine or vinegar would have a similar effect, but they'll leave evidence behind. Water disappears without a trace.
Water is used as a carrier, Jacques explains. The same method works when sautéing other vegetables, too. Once the water is gone, the olive oil does its job.
Sometimes you don't need to buy a fancy schmancy tool; you just need to buy some time.
WARNING: Water and oil are not friends. Be certain that your pan is not too hot when adding the water, and that you only add a small amount. Cover immediately.