Pickled onions

Photographer: Adam
Makes a 1 litre jar of onions

My grandparents were a great team when it came to preserves. Granddad was a skilled and very prolific gardener and Nana could turn anything that wasn’t used fresh into wonderful jams, pickles, chutneys and sauces. This is their recipe for pickled onions, which were made and stored for a couple of months to be brought out at Christmas time.

I like it because you don’t need to boil the vinegar and that always makes the whole house smell for days afterwards! Using cold vinegar also keeps the onions nice and crunchy, as does soaking overnight in a weak sugar or salt solution. Using sugar has the added advantage that it brings out the natural sweetness of the onions.

Any jars can be used but bigger is better, and a wide top makes it much easier to arrange the onions. Because the vinegar preserves the onions, sterilisation is not an issue, however, it is necessary to protect metal screw top lids by putting a large circle of waxed paper or plastic wrap between the top of the jar and the lid, as any scratches in the coating on the lid with allow the metal to rust. Plastic lids or ‘Kilner’ style jars with a rubber seal and glass lid will be fine without. If the lids are missing buy ‘jam covers’ complete with greaseproof paper disks and elastic bands, they’re not ideal for long storage but they’ll do the trick short term.

-Karen O’Neil


About 750g small onions or shallots
1 tbsp sugar
500ml malt vinegar
1 tbsp pickling spice
Small piece root ginger
Small piece of cinnamon stick
One bay leaf
One whole chilli


The onions need to soak in the sugar solution for 24 hours before adding the vinegar, but apart from that the method is quick and easy. The hard part is resisting them until they’re ready to eat. This takes a month or two during which time the onions turn dark brown.
1. Trim the top and base off the onions. Don’t take too much, especially from the base, or the layers of the onions will fall apart. Put the trimmed onions into a heat-proof bowl and pour boiling water over. As soon as the skins begin to wrinkle (1 – 2 minutes), pour off the water and peel the onions. Don’t leave them in the water too long or the end result will be a softer pickled onion.
2. Pack the peeled onions tightly into your jar and add 1 tbsp of sugar. Fill the jar with cold water, screw on the lid and turn over once or twice to distribute the sugar. Leave to stand for 24 hours.
3. Next day: without removing the onions, pour off the sugar solution and rinse the onions two of three times with clean cold water. Reposition the onions to ensure they are packed tightly enough to prevent them from floating when the vinegar is added.
4. Sprinkle the pickling spice over the onions and add any of the optional flavourings. Then fill the jar two thirds full with malt vinegar and top up with cold water so all the onions are covered. Cut a circle of waxed paper or plastic wrap larger than the top of the jar and place it under the lid before sealing the jars. Store in a cool dark place for a least a month until the onions have changed from white to dark brown.