Tender, intact onions
Lots of char and caramelization
A flavorful finish
While grilled onions are typically used as part of a grilled vegetable mix, their sharp, sweet bite; caramelized edges; and crisp-tender texture are so good that I wondered if I could create a version worthy of being a side dish all on its own. I’d opt for the common yellow variety and would serve onion halves, rather than separating them into rings or cutting them into wedges, since I wanted a substantial side dish that presented well. The trick would be figuring out how to cook them evenly. To serve the onions as a stand-alone dish, I wanted to cook them longer in order to mellow their sharp bite and soften their texture. I would have to figure out how to achieve this without burning their exteriors.
To that end, medium heat was my best bet for giving the halves enough time to cook through without burning. But simply putting the onion halves on the grill and cooking them until charred and tender left a lot to be desired. The onions had dried out too much and required frequent turning to make sure they didn’t burn. And with all the handling, they came apart by the time they were done.Our five-recipe test included a range of onion varieties and methods of preparation, but we decided that versatile yellow onion’s strong but mellow flavor made it a perfect candidate for our side dish.
My first change was to modify the way I prepped them. Following the lead of other recipes I’d found, I had been cutting the onions crosswise through the middle. But cut this way, they had no chance of holding together—the rings toward the center popped right out. Cutting them from pole to pole (in other words, from root end to stem end) gave each half a better chance of staying in one piece.
To prevent them from drying out too much, I tried wrapping each half in foil before grilling; I hoped that the onions would cook through gently in the moist heat while developing some browning through the foil. Indeed, these onions were very tender, but the flat side, which had been facing the grate, bordered on burnt. And even worse, they lacked any charred flavor from the grill since they hadn’t been directly exposed to the flames.
Cooking whole onions in the coals makes them taste steamed versus grilled.
I needed a hybrid approach. I scrapped the fussy individual packets and instead arranged the halves cut side down in an aluminum roasting pan. And to keep the exteriors from charring, I left the skins on. I covered the pan and let the onions cook until they were softened before transferring them to the grill grate to finish cooking. Unfortunately, there was so much residual moisture from the steaming that the onions didn’t pick up much char, and they were difficult to handle since they were so soft.
So I reversed the order. I began grilling the halves cut side down on the grate until charred. Then I transferred them cut side up to the pan, covered the pan, and let them steam until a paring knife slipped easily in and out of each half. These onions held together and had a buttery-rich texture, with great caramelization on the bottom side that had been against the pan. But the char, though impressive going into the pan, had washed out a bit in the steamy environment. The fix was twofold: I left the onions cut side down on the grate for several minutes to bolster the char, and I briefly grilled the rounded side over direct heat, too.
My tender, caramelized, smoky onions just needed a quick, flavorful finish. An herb-flecked butter seemed promising, but the richness overwhelmed the onions. Instead, I whisked together a simple balsamic vinaigrette to drizzle over the onions before serving. The dressing complemented their sweetness and provided some necessary contrasting acidity. With a final sprinkling of minced chives, I had grilled onions well worthy of side-dish status.