Recipe – Sautéed BBQ Onions

There is nothing better than really sweet, soft onions paired with barbecued meats. These onions are really simple to make, and can be added alongside any direct cook, or made separately. They go especially well on a homemade burger or with sausages such as smokey bockwurst. A splash of barbecue sauce added at the end gives them a delicious flavour.

These aren’t caramelised onions. Any recipe that has onions caramelised in under an hour should, I think, be treated with suspicion. These onions are sautéed (cooked quickly in a little fat). They provide more bite and a lighter colour than caramelised onions, such as the ones used in our Guiness Onion Jam.

The Recipe

The recipe is really just onions, seasoning and some sugar to kick-start a small amount of caramelisation. Heat and time do the rest, and the longer you take the better they are. Expect to wait a minimum of 30 minutes, if you continue you’ll end up with caramelised onions which are no bad thing.

Caramelisation breaks down the natural sugars and starch in the onions to release a sweeter flavour. The addition of some sugar makes these slightly sweeter earlier, which along with the barbecue sauce, go well with burgers, steaks or sausages.

Chopped onions, a weber chimney with coals, melted butter, seasoned onions, onions softening and onions with barbecue sauce.
Evenly chopped onions; two zone barbecue setup; melted butter in a suitable skillet; seasoned onions; softened and sugared; and a splash of BBQ sauce

These amounts scale up according to the amount of onions you use. I find that you don’t need to double the sugar if you double the onions, a small amount will do.


  • Slice the onions in equal sized rings or half rings, about 5mm thick. It’s important to make them equal so they cook at the same rate, or you’ll end up with some dissolved and some still firm. I recommend a mandolin for speed and consistency. 
  • You need to set up the grill for two zone cooking with a hot and cooler side. We want the onions to soften slowly not to be burnt, so be prepared to move them around to maintain a medium temperature.
  • Melt the butter in a small barbecue safe dish, I use a cast iron skillet.
  • Once melted add the onions and turn to coat them all with the butter. Add the salt and pepper and stir in.
  • Once the onions start to soften and take on a more golden colour add the sugar. Sprinkle it over and turn to combine. 
  • Keep stirring the onions. You want to maintain a temperature where the onions are cooking slowly, but not burning. This will mean moving the pan between the hot and cool zones of the barbecue. 
  • Finally add a splash of barbecue sauce stir in and let the onions cook for a further 5 minutes to let the sauce combine.

If the onions start to dry out then add a splash of water. You can also do this to extend the cooking time if you need to keep the onions warm. 

It’s important to slice the onions evenly, so that they cook at the same rate and achieve an even colour and texture. Thicker onions will take longer to caramelise, but will retain more of their shape. You can chop the onions very finely so they almost dissolve into an onion jam. 

The Tools and Techniques

  • Mandoline – A mandoline makes quick and easy work of evenly chopping onions and other vegetables. They need some care as it’s easy to lose a fingertip. I use a larger model that is now discontinued from Lakeland or smaller Benriner for other vegetables like garlic.
  • Cast Iron Skillet – A thick cast iron pan is really useful for all sorts of barbecuing. Cast iron takes longer to heat, but retains heat well and distributes it evenly. For a recipe like this a cast iron pan helps overcome any fluctuations in temperature. I use something similar to this that I picked up years ago.

* Disclaimer: I may get commissions for purchases made through links on this page. I always try to be clear where I use a specific item, and don’t recommend anything I don’t use myself.

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