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This savory Creamed Pearl Onions recipe graces my holiday table with sweet onions and a cream sauce that compliments everything being served.
All images and text ©Jenny DeRemer for Not Entirely Average, LLC
Pearled onions are sold dry like regular onions in your grocer’s produce isle. It is necessary to par-boil them and ‘slip off’ their skins in order to cook with them. The process isn’t difficult, but it can be time consuming if it’s not your thing.
A far easier task is to head directly to your grocer’s frozen isle and hunt down a bag of already peeled and flash-frozen pearl onions. They are ready to go straight out of the bag without the involved process of par-boiling necessary.
Pearl onions are baby onions and are similar in flavor to white onions only sweeter. The answer to the question about using them the same way you’d use a regular onion is yes…with a caveat of course. This caveat is the other way around, however.
Regular onions could not gracefully fill the role in the recipe I am sharing today. Regular onions, unlike pearl onions would be required to be at the very least quartered to cook properly in a recipe such as this. That also means the layers would come apart during the cook making this a rather clumsy dish to try to eat.
Pearl onions are specified in recipes where onion is necessary, but an intact bulb in the finished dish is desired. Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon is a prime example of where onion in the recipe is quite necessary. Julia not only calls for the addition of an onion chopped, but also the pearl onions. She knows full well the large onion will virtually melt into the sauce during the braise. The pearl onions remain intact and are a desirably sweet profile in the finished dish.
Creamed Onions Recipe
Anthony Bourdain introduced each of us to many world cultures through its food. Over the years, I have emersed myself in his adventures. I have tasted with him the many unique and sometimes strange edibles he’d sampled just so we could know what it tasted like, too.
To say that I was gutted when I learned of his passing would be an understatement. I felt as though I had lost somebody I knew well, as impactful as losing a family member.
I recall going back through favorite episodes of Parts Unknown. There were recipes I’d madly scribbled down so as to be able to recreate them in my own kitchen. Nobody, not even Julia Child (although a damn close second) influenced me more powerfully and more directly than Anthony Bourdain.
In an effort to always celebrate the man who taught me to embrace the exploration of international culture and all things travel, I often find myself going back to my handwritten methods for Anthony’s food. One such scrap of paper boasts the directions for pearl onions in cream sauce, although I have modified it over the years to suit my eaters.
My version, which I like enough to share with YOU, is different in that I take the additional step of toasting my dry flour in order to achieve a rich, nutty flavor and aroma. To this, I introduce both Cognac as well as a shot of Tabasco to elevate the entire dish. Hey, this is the south after all, y’all.
Do You Have All You Need to Assemble This Pearl Onion Recipe? Check the List!
- a full pound of pearl onions *see note at the bottom of the recipe card
- all-purpose flour
- unsalted butter
- beef or veal stock
- heavy cream
- Worcestershire sauce
- Tabasco or other favorite hot sauce
- Kosher salt
- white pepper
How This Recipe Came About…
For me, traditions are critical. Traditions define generations and give us things to live up to.
I adopted this Creamed Pearl Onions recipe as tradition the day I watched Anthony Bourdain prepare it. It is part of our very important holiday meal, in addition to a Beef Tenderloin Roast and my Southern Mashed Potatoes with Parmesan Crust, our Christmas Eve dinner.
I decided to share this recipe as well as others I plan for Christmas not only because readers often ask, but also so that I can hopefully say that I have influenced YOU powerfully and directly, just like Anthony Bourdain did for me. In some small way, I am “keeping Anthony’s ball in the air” so to speak, and I will endeavor to do this with every recipe I bring to this website.
Anthony Bourdain said of Charleston, South Carolina “this place has almost too many beautiful buildings, almost too many incredibly talented chefs, and almost too much really, really good food.” I personally couldn’t agree more.
Fresh Pearl Onions Versus Frozen?
This is one of those instances that for as often as you are going to use them, it’s totally up to you regarding fresh (dry) or frozen. Here are the attributes I personally love to coax from an onion when cooking it; sugar caramelization and keeping the shape or integrity of the onion.
Sugar caramelization is 100% achievable when using fresh or frozen onions. As far as maintaining the shape or integrity of the onion, pearls fresh are able to stay true to form while frozen pearls cooked at the same temperature in the same type of cast skillet in butter wither and shrink.
Which do I use? For this recipe, I go with either/or because the method requires no caramelization and moves along too quickly for the onions to lose their shape. If cooking up a lengthy Beef Bourguignon, I will take the time (I find it therapeutic) to par-boil and peel fresh pearl onions. Why? For both attributes I have listed above.
How Do I Prepare Fresh Onions?
If you do decide to use fresh baby onions, I applaud you! Simply place the onions into a medium pot and cover them with cold water by about 1/2-inch. Gently boil over medium heat until the onions are tender, NOT FULLY COOKED, about 10 minutes.
Drain the onions and give them about 5 to 8 minutes to cool down or if pressed for time, plunge directly into an ice bath for 1 minute before draining. Pick an onion up in your hand and pinch it at the root end gently, popping or sliding the peel off and in some cases, the outermost layer of the onion.
A quick note: while visiting Europe, I had the pure pleasure of being served creamy pearl onions alongside a pheasant dish. I noticed the ends, both root and stem end, had been trimmed with a knife. If your skins slip off easily enough, you may wish to consider trimming also as it is a more polished presentation in the finished dish.
How to Make This Creamed Pearl Onions Recipe?
First things first, you must decide if you plan to use fresh onions or frozen onions in this delicious recipe. From there, you will know if you are beginning with preparing onions for the recipe or just busting open a bag.
Ready for SIMPLE?? Pull out your cast iron skillet and set it over medium heat along with some flour.
Toast, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until golden in color and nutty in aroma, around 10 to 12 minutes. Immediately transfer to a bowl to stop the cooking process and set aside.
Make a Roux
In a medium saucepan or a high-sided sauté pan, melt butter over medium-high heat and add your toasted flour, whisking constantly for a full minute; you’ve now successfully made a roux. Gradually whisk in either rich beef or veal stock and bring to a boil, again whisking until the roux is smooth.
A side note: if you did not prefer to use beef or veal stock, there are other options. Chicken broth purchased from the grocery store may not have enough flavor to stand up to the other BOLD ingredients in this dish. If you have homemade chicken stock or even ham stock on hand, grab for either of those.
Make the Creamy Cognac Sauce
Remove skillet from heat altogether and whisk in a fair amount of heavy cream. Return your saucepan to medium-high heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the creamy sauce becomes thick, about 15 minutes.
Again, remove the saucepan from the direct heat and add in some Cognac. If you did not want to use Cognac, any brandy (I absolutely LOVE apple brandy in this dish) or dry white wine may be substituted.
Add the Onions
Optional Additional Step: if you want to get a bit of golden brown caramelization going on the onions, add the cast iron back atop the heat and melt a half tablespoon or so of butter. Once the butter is foaming, add the onions to the pan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until the onions begin to show some color. Caramelizing the onions BEFORE continuing with the recipe will require not just draining them, but also drying them as best you can on paper toweling.
Grab your bowl of now tender pearl onions and reduce heat to medium. Place onions into the sauce (I use a slotted spoon) and cook gently, stirring often, for 5 to 10 minutes before adding in some additional butter for sheen and flavor as well as a wee bit of Worcestershire sauce.
Very important: taste for seasoning and add either additional Worcestershire or hit the dish with a hefty pinch of Kosher salt. If you’re a pepper person, you may also wish to hit the dish with some white pepper however I personally recommend finishing with a couple dashes of Tabasco or hot sauce of your choice
Pro Tip: I go Worcestershire in smallish increments because it is the fastest way to season without adding more salt than is healthy.
Creamed Pearl Onions Recipe
- 1 pound pearl onions use fresh or frozen; fresh should be boiled in water in a stock pot over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes or until tender, then shocked in an ice water bath, peeled, and trimmed; frozen should be defrosted, drained, and dried as best you can
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 cups rich beef or veal stock
- ½ cup heavy cream
- ¼ cup Cognac may also use brandy or white wine
- 3 to 5 dashes Worcestershire sauce to taste
- 2 dashes Tabasco or other favorite hot sauce, to taste
- pinch Kosher salt to taste
- pinch white pepper to taste
make a roux
- Put flour into a small cast-iron skillet and toast over medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until golden, 10-12 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and set aside.
- Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large dee-sided saucepan over medium heat. Add toasted flour to create a roux, stirring constantly for 1 minute. Gradually whisk in stock and bring to a boil, whisking until the roux is very, very smooth. Remove saucepan from heat and whisk in cream. Return saucepan to medium-high heat and cook, stirring often, until sauce thickens, about 15 minutes.
- Optional: if you want to get a bit of golden-brown caramelization going on the onions, add the cast iron back atop the heat and melt a half tablespoon or so of butter. Once the butter is foaming, add the onions to the pan and cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly until the onions begin to show some color. Caramelizing the onions BEFORE continuing with the recipe will require not just draining them, but also drying them as best you can on paper toweling.
build the Cognac cream sauce
- Remove the saucepan from the heat again. Add brandy or wine and cook, stirring, until thick, about 2 minutes. Add onions; reduce heat to medium, and cook, stirring often, for 5-10 minutes. Whisk in remaining butter, add Worcestershire and Tabasco, and season to taste with salt and pepper.
The nutrition value can vary depending on what product(s) you use. The information below is an estimate. Always use a calorie counter you are familiar with.
Please note that table salt and iodized salt are NOT substitutions for Kosher salt. Do not deviate unless otherwise specified.
If You Like This Recipe…
…you might also like:
- Christmas Dinner Beef Tenderloin Roast
- Whipped Horseradish Cream
- Southern Parmesan Crusted Mashed Potatoes Recipe
- Pumpkin Pecan Bread Pudding with Warm Cinnamon Syrup