Pickled onions. They are great dividers. Love them, hate them, detest them. Where do you sit? And if you don’t happen to adore them, what is it about them that you struggle with? Let me guess … Is it the fact that the vinegar is sharp, that it hits you at the back of your throat, that it makes you cough a bit, that it leaves an unpleasant … well, vinegary, after taste? Or is it the onions? The last time you tried them were they a bit soggy with no bite – no crunch. Mmmmm, I thought so …
I’m going to be a bit bossy now. Try these pickled onions. You’ll be a convert.
They’re a family recipe – another one that originates from my Nan – and they are THE BEST EVER pickled onions. A bold statement, I know, but you’re going to agree for sure. You’ll find other more involved recipes if you look around, and also plenty of simpler ones too – but I can vouch for this fairly straightforward approach.
When I was growing up, these pickled onions were always a staple part of the Christmas menu – right up there with mince pies, ‘celery and walnut’ stuffing and cranberry sauce. A turkey sandwich on Boxing Day would have been naked without them.
And if you want to be ready with pickled onions at Christmas this year, you need to be sorting yourself out without too much delay.
Before we moved to live in Dubai, we spent 8 years living in the wonderful, historic city of Bath, England. It was here that we ran ‘eight catering’ – a food business based out of our home and creating fresh, tasty, homemade foods. We began by making Christmas cakes to sell at local Christmas fairs (more on these in a week or two) and soon broadened our range to include other festive foods, many of which also made great gifts.
Our cakes had a big following but it felt like a bit of a gamble the first year that we produced numerous jars of pickled onions to sell – especially knowing that they are not universally popular. But you know, word got around, and before long we were doing a roaring trade in pickled onions too. You see, the thing is, not only do they taste fab, but they also make a great gift for those ‘difficult’ men. You know who they are – you love them dearly, but they are those guys for whom you end up resorting to chocolate, socks, novelty books – or even worse … novelty socks. They are a festive challenge. With a bit of fabric and some ribbon (or garden twine for a more macho look) a jar of pickled onions as a gift says that you have made the effort and, after all, if you’ve made them yourself then they are also handmade with love … and that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?
In England, pickling onions seem to come into the shops around Halloween and so the timing works perfectly to then have them maturing for 6 weeks and be ready for Christmas.
When we were making pickled onions to sell, we would always buy the onions in bulk – two enormous 10kg sacks from the greengrocer – but of course, all those onions needed peeling. Groooaann. It became traditional to do this late in the evening while watching that cringey old classic Carry On film ‘Up Pompeii’. It doesn’t get any more random than that. Perhaps you could argue that the worse the film, the faster you peel …
So it works like this –
Stage 1 – Peel
Stage 2 – Salt them in a colander overnight. This draws out some of the moisture from the onions and ensures that they stay crunchy.
Stage 3 – Rinse off the salt and dry the onions.
Stage 4 – Pack the onions into wide neck jars. You can use Kilner jars or reuse old mayonnaise jars.
Stage 5 – Divide the pickling spice fairly evenly between the jars especially the mini chillies.
Stage 6 – Heat up the vinegar and sugar in a saucepan until the sugar is melted. The sugar in the vinegar is important to take away the sharpness of the vinegar.
Stage 7 – Pour the hot vinegar over the onions and screw the lids on tightly.
Stage 8 – Leave to mature in a cool, dark place for at least 6 weeks.
But let’s go back to the pickling spice in Stage 5 for a moment. You’ll probably be able to find ready spiced vinegar, but for me it doesn’t taste as good and it really is very little fuss to make your own. The whole spices in the liquid look pretty too. I often use this one but if it’s not available where you are, then you can always try making your own.
Let’s be frank here. Your house will smell like a vinegar factory for a little while. Your children will whine about it without a doubt – but scented candles were made for moments such as these. And when your pickled onions form an integral part of a delicious spread of cheese, glazed ham, leftover turkey, good bread and interesting salads over the holiday period; or when you slice up an onion or two to add to your favourite grilled cheese on toast or your particular sandwich of choice, you’ll be delighted that you made the leap.
And when your ‘difficult’ male friends open their festive gift and look relieved that it’s not another pair of novelty socks – they’ll gush; you’ll gush and it’ll be smiles all round.
One of my regular customers, back in the days of ‘eight catering’, used to buy 12 jars of pickled onions every Christmas for her lovely husband. This was his year’s supply. Maybe the way to a man’s heart really is through Pickled Onions. It works for this discerning woman too …
- 1.4kg pickling onions
- 50g table salt
- 1.14l malt vinegar
- 20g pickling spice
- 350g white sugar (granulated or caster sugar is fine)
- Peel the onions.
- Place the onions in a large colander and sprinkle with the salt, tossing well to ensure they are completely coated.
- Leave to stand overnight, then rinse and dry the onions well.
- Pack the onions into wide necked jars.
- Tip the pickling spice onto a plate and divide it between the jars ensuring that any chillies are evenly shared between the jars.
- Place the malt vinegar in a pan and add the sugar. Heat until the sugar is well dissolved, then pour the hot, sweet vinegar into the jars shaking them lightly to ensure that the vinegar runs down between the onions and covers them completely.
- Screw the lids onto the jars tightly.
- Leave the pickled onions to mature in a cool, dark place for at least 6 weeks.
Note – The quantities in this recipe may seem rather random. Use them as a guide for the ratio of each item and then your quantities will be determined by the weight of onions that you have to pickle. You’ll also need to judge how many jars you will need by eye, depending on their size. I used 3 large jars for this quantity but you will need to be flexible.