how long to caramelized onions

Tom Scocca’s mini exposé in Slate wafted through food writers’ Twitter feeds last week like the smell of a single rotting potato reek-bombing a kitchen pantry. The noxious charge: Recipe writers are liars.

In “Layers of Deceit,” Scocca began by calling bullshit on the New York Times food section and Melissa Clark, author of a recipe calling for taking onions from raw to soft, brown, and sweet in only 10 minutes. After taking a lot of other food writers out for making the same lie, Scocca got out the kitchen timer and proved the ridiculousness of the premise (in fact, caramelizing onions takes at least 45 minutes, if not a good, slow hour). In response, the Times garbled stuff about “unusual” secret shortcuts, the equivalent of looking down at your shoes and changing the subject.

Los Angeles Times‘s Russ Parsons piped up with I-told-you-people-all-along pieces, excavating stories about the true and proper way to caramelize onions. But the thing that went mostly unnoticed in the scramble to accuse or save face was Scocca’s larger indictment, which is that professional recipe writers’ work can seem as far removed from actual cooking as a cognitive study in the testing lab with subjects wired to electrodes is from actual thinking. Recipe writing occurs under unnatural conditions, conducted by professionals with laptops and clipboards. They pretend they’re doing stuff that ordinary home cooks might do, but they’re not ordinary home cooks, and many are definitely not cooking at home, under ordinary conditions.

As Scocca notes, “recipe writers approach kitchen time with a stopwatch.” For the rest of us, kitchen time is only one of the currents making up household flow. Cooking happens simultaneously with texting, unloading the drier, shooing the cat off the counter, and moving the lawn sprinkler. It’s about short periods of intense focus and long stretches of distraction, during which you hope you haven’t fucked everything up by burning the marinara.

Look, recipes have to be published, and full-time recipe testers are great—believe me, CHOW’s food team has amazing talent and discipline. It’s just that I crave the loose, imprecise, and inspirational approach of the generation that wrote cookbooks in the middle of the last century, back when James Beard wrote this:

For Steak au Poivre—Press crushed or cracked peppercorns into the steak before grilling or pan-broiling. After it is done to the right stage, flame it with a little cognac. When the steak is pan-broiled, sometimes the pan is rinsed with cognac and heavy cream, which is poured over the steak. (Delights and Prejudices, 1964)

Nobody could have busted Beard for deceiving them about anything as trivial as cooking time. Ladies and gentlemen, put your stopwatches down. It’s time to pick up your senses.

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