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Reblogged:Caramelizing Onions and Climate Change

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"[T]he best time to caramelize onions is yesterday." -- Tom Scocca

Today I learned explicitly -- but crucially not from a cookbook -- that it takes something like 45 minutes to caramelize onions. I make this admission somewhat sheepishly, given that I am my family's cook and like to think of myself as a good one.

(In my defense, I can't recall offhand more than two or three recipes I have cooked more than a couple of times that call for them. Usually, soft and translucent is good enough, if not correct.)

Nevertheless, the "lie" Tom Scocca explores is no mere curiosity, but a memorable example of a broader phenomenon about how our culture's knowledge system can misfire, even on a simple, low-stakes, and easily testable matter.

That is, as Alex Epstein explained in Fossil Future, among the ways bad information can become conventional wisdom, mistakes in how knowledge is discovered, synthesized, disseminated, or evaluated can contribute.

Scocca notes that many recipes -- including from such icons as Julia Child -- that call for caramelized onions give absurdly bad guidance regarding how long it takes. Even more interesting, this isn't an unknown problem, as we see from Scocca's attempt to implement a time-saving technique to caramelize onions:
Telephone Pictionary shows through exaggeration how knowledge can be transmitted incorrectly. (Image by daveoratox, via Wikimedia Commons, license.)
At 10 minutes, when it was supposed to be done, the onion was translucent and soft, with only a tinge of gold. Soon after, one golden speck appeared. By 15 minutes, the onion was even softer and more golden. At 20 minutes, there were deep brown patches, and I was afraid they would scorch while I set down my spatula to take notes. At 24 minutes, the risk of scorching forced me to lower the heat to medium. By 25 minutes, they were pretty well caramelized, and at 28 minutes they were as done as I'd want.

So [Melissa] Clark was only off by 180 percent on the cooking time. You can save 12 minutes off caramelizing onions, provided you pin yourself to the stove.

That is the deeper problem with all the deceit around the question of caramelized onions. The premise is wrong. The faster you try to do it, the more you waste your time. This isn't some kitchen koan. It's a practical fact. The 10-minute-cum-28-minute caramelized onion is all labor and anxiety. Give yourself 45 or 50 minutes to brown onions, working slowly on a moderate flame, and it's an untaxing background activity. You can chop other vegetables, wash some pots, duck out to have a look at the ballgame on TV in the next room. Keep half an eye on the pan. It will only need close tending toward the end.
I think Scocca is harsh to use the term deceit here.

It is not hard to hypothesize a more innocent explanation, simply by introspecting a bit from my own experience as a self-trained, somewhat hackish chef...

People who know least how to cook rely the most on cookbooks, and I can remember how confusing it could be to make something interesting. Indeed, it affected how I (re-)write recipes: I distinctly remember the annoyance at seeing things in ingredient lists like 1 cup onions, chopped. Not wanting to discover in the middle of everything that I needed to chop onions, I made chopping onions an actual step of the recipe.

And certainly, too hurried to time anything, I was simply happy to get a good result. I wouldn't beat myself up for onions being a little underdone nor would I have necessarily noticed them taking a long time to turn brown.

And I'm pretty sure I've decided underdone was good enough and just moved on plenty of times over the years, too.

So one problem is that a major part of the primary audience for cookbooks is neither inclined nor particularly suited to evaluating everything they disseminate.

Looking at the same issue from the other end, twenty years later, I see that I have a sort of feel for how long something like cooking onions takes, and I just start them early and do other things when I'm making something that requires onions. I usually don't really notice how long it takes. So, once again, a common fallacy gets missed or forgotten.

And Julia Child? You might think, She's an expert chef! Surely she knows! I don't know exactly how she or a ghostwriter wrote her recipes, but I can see any number of innocent explanations for a low (or apparently low) estimate: She didn't time it and guessed, based in part on how little time it takes to get that started and how little attention it actually requires. A ghostwriter asked and she gave an offhand estimate that nobody checked. Maybe even by her time, everyone already had some fuzzy notion that caramelizing onions was relatively simple, and would throw out a short time estimate. Like so many people today, perhaps she "just knew" that it takes about 10 minutes.

None of this excuses giving incorrect information, but it's easy to see how even an expert can give a bad answer to a question that ends up not being challenged. Reading this article caused me to think, Yeah. It does take forever to brown onions. Why haven't I noticed that before?

What you have here is experts making a mistake or at least failing to test a common assumption (bad research), people generally not comparing those low numbers to actual experience or other knowledge (bad synthesis), practically every cookbook propagating that kind of error to the point that "everyone knows" it takes 5-10 minutes to brown onions (dissemination of a mistake), and lots of people concluding that they can't cook, or that they must have missed something about cooking onions, or even that Julia Child is deceitful (bad evaluation).

I submit that this is a microcosm of how, despite fifty years of hysteria about the end of the world being only a decade away, so few people ever question the doomsayers. Most panic right along with them, or roll their eyes and tune them out while they keep working overtime on policies that will starve billions if they are ever fully implemented.

No, evaluating how our activities might affect the climate and what to do about it aren't as simple or low-stakes as how to brown onions, but that just means there are many more things that can go wrong within the knowledge system. And that emphatically includes the evaluative step that automatically assumes that leave it in the ground is somehow the wisest or safest thing to do.

-- CAV

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