Should You Cook Onions Or Meat First For The Best Dishes?


Making a dish with onions and meat, such as chili, stews, or bolognese sauce, I often see different recipes adding one or the other first to the pan. These first steps in recipes are important for browning and developing flavor. For the best results what is best added to the pan first?

It’s best to brown the meat first, remove it from the pan and then saute the onions to deglaze it. Once softened, add the garlic for a few minutes, and then your other ingredients including the browned meat.

Adding the garlic slightly later is important as it’s smaller and has less water than the onion so it burns faster.

There are also a few nuances about browning the meat – you might not even need to and there are lots of different types of meat.

With that in mind, I decided to write an article that I hope clears up some of the confusion about which way around to cook meat and onions so read on to find out more.

How To Properly Cook Onion, Garlic, And Meat

Meat that definitely benefits from being cooked first is any meat that should be browned. Meat that is browned goes through the “Maillard reaction” which is the tasty chemical reaction from caramelization that boosts flavor.

This is good for chunks of meat in stews or braises but also worth doing when cooking ground or minced meat in chili and other meat sauces.

Although it’s an optional step that can be skipped if you’re in a rush, the extra 5 minutes is worth the flavor.

Once it’s browned you can remove it before continuing. You’re left with a pan with lots of browned pieces stuck on the bottom. This is where adding some diced onions which will sweat out is perfect for “deglazing” the pan with their juices.

Once the onions have had their rawness cooked off, add your garlic to cook for a minute or two. I like to think of garlic as a seasoning as it’s so small it doesn’t need much cooking- I wrote a whole article on how to add garlic to different dishes.

You can now add your other veggies, tomatoes, or other liquids to simmer down.

On the contrary, if you choose to add the onions before the meat, you are unlikely to get any serious direct heat on the meat. It won’t brown, you might undercook the meat or you might burn the onions if you cook it all for too long.

Can I Cook Raw Meat And Onion Together?

You can cook raw meat and onions together as long as they are fully cooked through before consumption. This works well for small portions but larger ones might be best in batches.

Keep in mind you might not get direct heat to the meat so it won’t brown and become tasty.

If you’re making a stew or chili where the meat is going to be cooked for a long time anyway, the only reason to cook the meat first is to brown it which enhances the flavor. If you’re in a rush then you can just add it to the pan with the onions and garlic and let them all cook together.

However, if you’re making a dish like a stir-fry where the meat is only cooked for a short time, it’s best to cook it through and then remove it from the pan before cooking the onions. This will prevent the meat from drying out and becoming tough.

So, as a general guide, if you’re going to be cooking the meat and onions together for a longer time, optionally brown the meat first to add some flavor and color.

Why Are Onions And Garlic Cooked Before Other Vegetables?

You often see many recipes call for onions and garlic to be cooked before other vegetables but why is that? 

The main reason is that they have a stronger flavor raw, so cooking them first allows their flavor to mellow out, ready to permeate the dish more subtly.

Making great dishes is all about building depth of flavor. Sauteed onions and garlic help to build a foundation for the layers of other tastes that take shape as the cooking progresses.

Onions typically take a while to cook down enough to release that lovely sweet taste they give when turning slightly caramelized (see my tips on perfect caramelized onions). It’s very difficult to achieve that if they’re mixed in with all the other ingredients so often they are cooked before everything else is added.

Another reason is that if you don’t cook down your onions first they will retain a crunchy texture which is very often not what you want in many dishes.

And finally, onions have a natural sweetness that is further heightened the longer you cook them, so they can help to balance out dishes.

Why You Should Cook Onion Before Garlic

Onion should be cooked before garlic as it’s usually in larger pieces and contains more water so needs more cooking. Garlic will burn more quickly if added too soon.

If you’ve cook onions and garlic together at the same time, you’ve probably noticed that the garlic gets burnt and bitter way before the onions are anywhere near done. 

Sometimes they char badly so you have to throw them out and start again as it affects the taste of the whole dish. Check out my post on cooking garlic well in different dishes.

The main reason for this is that garlic has less moisture than onions so it’s more prone to burning. By cooking the onions first, you’re giving them a chance to develop their flavors before even thinking about adding the garlic and having to worry about it catching and turning acrid.

The onions have a chance to develop and mellow out a bit before the garlic is added. This helps to create a more balanced dish.

So, as a general rule of thumb, I would recommend cooking onions before garlic unless the recipe specifically says otherwise.

How Long Should You Cook Onions And Garlic?

Typically, it’s recommended to cook onions for 5-10 minutes before adding the garlic and then cooking both together for a further minute.

Figuring out how long you should cook onions and garlic often depends on the dish you’re making and how strong you want the flavor of the onions and garlic to be.

If you’re looking for a more subtle flavor, then cook them for a shorter period of time but long enough for them to soften and become translucent. You absolutely want to cook the rawness off.

If you want a sweeter flavor, then keep cooking them past this point until they begin to caramelize or turn golden. You can caramelize onions for up to 1 hour if stirred regularly.

When your onions are just about ready is the best time to add the garlic as it will only take a minute or so to cook. Let your nose be your guide as it will become lovely and fragrant once it’s ready.

You can then start adding your other ingredients and building up your dish.

What Happens When You Cook Onions?

When you cook onions, a number of things happen.

Firstly, the water that is inside the onion cells starts to evaporate which makes them shrink in size. At the same time, the natural sugars inside the onions begin to caramelize and this is what gives them their lovely sweet flavor.

The longer you cook onions, the more moisture they will lose and the sweeter they will become as more and more of the sugars are caramelized.

This is why it’s important to cook them for long enough that they become soft but not so long that they start to burn and turn crispy.

What Happens When You Cook Garlic?

Cooking garlic is a bit different from cooking onions.

Garlic has less moisture than onions so it’s more prone to burning. This is why it’s important not to add it at the same time as the onions but to wait until the onions have had a chance to cook down a bit first.

When garlic is cooked, it will become fragrant and its flavor will be mellowed out very quickly. If you cook it for too long, it can become burnt and bitter so it’s important to keep an eye on it and take it off the heat as soon as it’s ready.

Conclusion

Hopefully, you now know whether you should cook onions or meat first in your recipes.

The key takeaway is that it often depends on the dish you’re making, but if you’re unsure then I would recommend cooking the meat before the onions unless you’re following a recipe that says otherwise.

I often just remove it from the pan once it’s browned and then cook off the onion and garlic. Then it’s simply a case of adding the meat back in with the other ingredients and continue making the meal.

Don’t forget that if you’re adding garlic, it’s best to cook this for just a minute or so once the onions are almost ready so that it doesn’t burn.

Tom

Hey, I'm Tom. I set up Boss The Kitchen to start answering the thousands of questions people have while cooking. For me, the kitchen is my happy place and I hope to help other people with the knowledge I've gained along the way.

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