Pickled onions are delicious, and make a great, affordable foodie Christmas gift. They do take a couple of days to prepare but the actual hands-on time is really short. The difference between home made pickled onions and store bought is huge. For some reason you only get the real kick, bite and crunch from a home made pickled onion. Commercial brands can be a bit insipid.
You can vary your onion style, by using different onion types, using a range of different vinegars or adding a variety of spices to your pickling onions, but any way you choose there are some simple rules to follow to guarantee crisp, delicious home made pickled onions every time.
Gardeners can make great use of onions that haven’t quite reached their potential by pickling any onions that just don’t grow big enough. You can turn a harvesting disaster into a culinary triumph, just pickle your rejects.
Preparing Your Onions
First you’ll need to peel and brine your onions. This has to happen 24 hours before onion pickling, but it’s easy to do.
You’ll need a non- metallic, non-plastic bowl or pot to brine your onions in. You don’t want the metal to react with the salt and onion juice, and plastic can take on the flavor of salty onion water, and that’s not ideal.
Add about a quart of water in your pot, then add as much salt as your water can take, pouring the salt and stirring until the water just can’t absorb any more salt. That’s a lot of salt. This is no time to be messing about with Dead Sea salt or Himalayan salt, cheap factory salt will do the job as you don’t want to bankrupt yourself.
I use an old Le Creuset bean pot. It works great because it has a lid that you can put on upside down – more of that in a minute. It’s also really pretty.
This is the hardest part of the process. There’s onions to be peeled, they’re going to smell and your eyes will water. I’ve tried several approaches to minimizing the eye watering effect, from refrigerating the onions to peeling them underwater to wearing the full on Walter White meth cooking outfit to protect myself.
My brother swears by an old WWII gas mask, although I suspect that’s just because he likes wearing it and scaring Dr Who fans by asking “are you my mummy”. I’ve tried it and I couldn’t breathe, so it wasn’t for me.
I peel the onions in a well ventilated room. I find that investing in a good knife for the job, and getting the onions into brine as soon as possible speeds the peeling up, and that’s the best way to avoid too much crying and having stinky hands.
Cut the top and bottom off, leaving as much onion as possible, then peel off the papery skins.
You knife matters. Do not use a carbon steel knife, it will react with the onion juices and they may go black and icky. You want a knife that is non-reactive. A stainless steel knife will work, but tends not to be as sharp.
I use a ceramic knife because it’s ridiculously sharp and really light so it’s easy to handle. This is a benefit when you’re pickling a lot of onions as your hands and wrists don’t get bored of it quite so quickly.
Brining Your Onions
Throw your onions in the brine as you go along. Your onions will float. This is really annoying of them. As you throw more onions in they’ll hold the others down, but for the 24 hour brine soak you will want your onions fully covered.
When you’re done peeling, check your onion/brine ratio. Can you push the onions down so they can be fully covered? If not make more brine. If so you need to find a better way of keeping them covered than you holding them down all night.
I have a cereal bowl that fits perfectly in my bean pot to hold them down. If my pot is really full then just putting the lid on upside down will do the trick. If you’re using a mixing bowl then a plate weighed down with a jar will do it.
After 24 hours in the brine your onions will look OK, but the brine will look horrible. That’s OK. What’s happened is the salt will have drawn out some of the onion juice into the water. This makes it look murky and slimy, but you’re not going to drink it so don’t worry.
Drain the onions and let them dry for a few minutes.
Thrown the stinky onion water away. If you’re using a gray water system for your garden then you’ll need to bypass it, you really don’t want this stuff getting onto your plants, the salt will kill them.
You’ll need some pickling vinegar. You can use malt, but the acidity level isn’t ideal so you’ll end up with substandard onions. You can mix things up a bit. I sometimes use 10% balsamic vinegar for color and flavor. Or 20% cider vinegar for a bit of zip.
Some people like a sweeter onion. You can add about a quarter cup of sugar or honey to two cups vinegar for a sweeter blend.
For a spicy hot onion add a sliced chili pepper or some chili flakes to your mix.
Pickling vinegar is inexpensive so don’t worry that it comes in a giant tub, you will use quite a lot, about a quart for each pound of onions to be on the safe side.
Sterilize your jars, either using the sterilizer setting on your dishwasher or by boiling in hot water for 10 minutes.
Put as many onions as will fit into each jar, giving them a shake to settle them and squishing them down gently. Once full, pour over your pickling vinegar. You want the vinegar to cover the onions.
Seal up your jars and store in a cool dark place for 1-3 months.
For a more southern European style pickle you can leave the bottles in the sun if you live somewhere sunny. They’ll be softer and have more of a cooked taste.
If you’re making pickled onions for yourself then you can go ahead and pickle them in old pickle jars, but if you’re making them as a gift then a nice jar does set them off nicely. These jars come in pint and quart as well as half gallon sizes.
Add a cute label and lid cover set to your order to really set off your onion gift nicely and increase the perceived value.