Help! Lots of recipes say to sauté onions until they are translucent. I can never tell for sure what that means. They never turn translucent for me. What am I doing wrong?--Trish
Chances are you aren't doing anything wrong at all.
I too find the description of onions turning translucent to be difficult. Translucent means that you should be able to see light through the pieces of onion. Other than the fact that I am not inclined to pick a piece of onion out of the hot fat to check if it has turned translucent, the description is just plain bad. While there is a change in color from white to milky, I just don't think that the word "translucent" is a good description.
To understand what you are aiming for, notice what happens. Two main things occur as you sauté onions. First, the harsh flavor caused by certain sulfur compounds in the onion cook off. This is a hint that the onions are close to being cooked enough. The smell changes from that harsh, nose stinging smell to something less abrasive and a little sweet.
Second, the onion begins to soften. If you bite a piece of raw onion, it crunches between your teeth, making an audible, crisp sound, like celery does. When it has been sautéed enough, the texture goes from crisp to al dente. It won't be as soft as cooked pasta, say, but it you try to cut a piece with the edge of your spatula or spoon, it will go through without the two pieces going flying in opposite directions. It should still resist a bit, though. This is your second indication that it is cooked enough.
Use these two tests to see if your onions are cooked enough. The smell and the crispness have both changed. With a little practice you will learn to easily recognize when they are cooked.
Generally, you don't want to have the onions start to brown, though, unless the recipe explicitly says so. If they do start to brown, you likely have the heat too high. Take the pan off heat for a while to let it cool down quicker, turn the heat down to medium or medium-low and then return the pan to the heat and continue cooking.
By the way, some recipes call it sweating the onion. If I have to choose between those two descriptions, I guess maybe I'll go with sautéing them until they turn translucent. It at least sounds appealing, even if it isn't very descriptive.