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Pickled Onions

My husband’s eyes nearly popped out of the sockets when he spotted them in the basket. “Oh my God, what are you doing with those?!”, he asked fully knowing the answer. “Was thinking of making pickled onions”, I said knowing that if we hadn’t already survived many years together, this would have sealed the deal. Mention pickled onions to any English person and watch what happens, especially if they are far away from England or at least a reliable source. Even funnier, ask an English person about pickled onion Monster Munch. I’m not going to tell you what that is. You have to find out for yourselves.

Pickled onions are as much a part of English culture as the Sunday roast or the Christmas pudding. The favoured way to eat them is in a ploughman’s lunch. A tradition best enjoyed in a sunny pub garden with a nice pint, the ploughman’s consists of a hunk of good bread, a chunk or two of nice cheese (especially sharp cheddar), possibly a bit of cold meat,  a bit of salad, a spoonful of pickle such as Piccalilli or Branston and a big fat pickled onion.  My husband is also partial to a sliced pickled onion and feta cheese sarnie (sandwich) which, I have to agree, is very nice indeed! Mind you, he’d also just eat them straight out of the jar with a fork if he thought he could get away with it. Being that it is getting towards the end of winter, these little guys should be ready in time for the sunny days of summer, but believe me, I will be hiding the bottles around the house so that I can introduce them slowly lest I end up with  a pickled husband.

A sad job

Traditional English Pickled Onions

2 kgs of pickling onions

2 litres of vinegar (I made one of malt vinegar, which is traditional and one of apple cider vinegar just to mix things up a bit)

about 8 teaspoons of pickling spices (coriander seeds, black peppercorns and mustard seeds are the usual but I also add a bay leafand a chili for each bottle)

340 g sugar


Peel the onions by topping and tailing them and pouring boiling water over them. Once the water cools down the skins slip off fairly easily.

Salt the onions and leave for a few hours or over night.

Then rinse the salt off the onions and let them dry while you heat up the vinegar and spices.

Gently heat the sugar, spices and vinegar until the sugar has dissolved. Do not boil.

Fit the onions into your sterilised bottles* and top up with the vinegar distributing the spices amongst each of the bottles.

Let the lids seal onto the bottles whilst they cool and then wait a couple of months before eating. The longer you wait the better they are and I’d suggest 4 months as a good amount of time if you can handle it.

* I’m using “bottle” here in the sense of “to bottle something”, ie. to preserve it in glass jars that have been sterilised for later eating. In American English this is known as “canning” and I’ve even heard Americans call glass bottles “cans” during this process, but I’m not sure if that is the regular word or if they usually just say “jar”.

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13 Responses to "Pickled Onions"

  1. Marie says:

    That’s a good tip, Paul. I spent my childhood in the US, but I can say that I have no idea what a “boiler onion” is. I must investigate because I am intrigued. But I do know full well what it is like when, all of a sudden, you need a taste of something that is not locally available so I can relate to your need for pickled onions. By the way, I know it seems odd that these ones have sugar in them, but they do not come out sweet, I can assure you. That would be sacrilege! Thanks for stopping by.

    P.S. I did a search and it seems that “boiler onions” are so called because they tend to be blanched in boiling water before using in soups, stews, roasts and the yummy looking ‘creamed onions’. Now I’m going to have to try and make creamed onions from the next lot of pickling onions I buy:) Thanks for bringing my attention to these variations.

  2. Paul Childs says:

    I am British, living in America 4 years, no Pickled onions!, decided it was time to make them myself!, after some searching, finally found “boiler onions” in Walmart of all places, took a risk and went for it, my recipe leaves out the sugar, I don’t dig sweet pickles. Any way, followed the various recipes and methods on here and bottled up my Pickles, and can firmly report to any Brit or 1st timer out there, the Walmart Boiler Onions are fine, by Christmas 2011 last year I had fantastic British style pickles, I was very excited, which is ridiculous, but when one cannot get something in the USA, suddenly its a big deal! and my us Step sons were converted!, albeit in hot dogs etc!
    Making more for 2012!

  3. Marie says:

    Alli, yes definitely. Licking you fingers at the end is like the piece de resistance! The Grande Finale! Le Triomphe! But now I’ve noticed that Monster Munch are small. Boo! I preferred the giant ones that you could actually take bites out of.

    Here’s an update on the pickled onions, by the way. The first bottle was opened just after we returned from our holiday over Christmas…gone! 75% of the second bottle, …gone! It’s only been two and a half weeks and these are not small bottles. Like I said, I should’ve hidden them.

  4. Alli says:

    OMG pickled onion mister munch, the best part was the concentrated flavor bits at the bottom of the bag! Just when your thought your taste buds were numb the bits stepped it a final notch….ha such memories, thanks for the reminder. So true about the English, I eat pickled onions all the time and definitely on a sandwich with cheese.

  5. Marie says:

    Do you know, I think it would. I’d only use white vinegar, however and add some garlic cloves and chillies to the jars. Plus, with the onions you only need to salt them overnight and then wash off the salt, but I think you’d actually want to put a bit of salt in with the vinegar mixture to use it with okra because they’d just taste of vinegar otherwise. I’m not sure about the mushy factor, but I’d suggest that you wash and dry the okra well before packing them into the jars. Don’t cook them first.

    Yum, now you’ve got me thinking about pickled okra which I haven’t had in 200 years.

  6. matt says:

    Do you think this recipe would work for okra? I’ve tried pickled okra in the past but it always ended up a mushy or chewy/stringy disaster…

  7. Marie says:

    Carrie-Anne, you would love these! They are like the pickle that keeps on giving because they are about 10 times the size of a cocktail onion.

    Ana, on burgers? That’s a very good idea. (writes that down for later)

  8. Ana O'Reilly says:

    I love pickled onions! I put them on burgers too. And Ploughman’s lunch is the best!

  9. Carrie Anne says:

    I’ve not only never had pickled onions, but no where have I even seen them mentioned in the US. It’s like it doesn’t exist. But I LOVE cucumber pickles, and pickled beets, so I definitely want to give these a try.

  10. Marie says:

    Eileen- I’m adding “cebollas escabechados” to my list of things to try when I get to Chile. There are also those small ones that go in martinis. I wonder if that is British-related. Now I’m imagining a giant martini with one of these babies in it!

    Lucy- Don’t be ashamed! Take up the cause. No more shame in pickled onion eating!

    Lisa- Oh yes, they definitely taste best in the middle of the night…stolen!

  11. Eileen says:

    so, this is British? In Chile have something here at little markets and the supermarket and at traditional all-foods-traditional shops, and they’re called “cebollas escabechados” (pickled onions). They’re pinky-brown, and I’m not sure what vinegar is used for them, as we don’t have malt vinegar, and it doesn’t seem that they make sure to use the smallest possible onions, either. I have one friend that is totally mad for them. How funny! British food in Chile. We don’t have much of that, most of it got trapped on the other side of the Andes in Argentina.

    Enjoy! (well, in four months!)

  12. Lucy says:

    Good to know I’m not the only one to get over-enthusiastic at the thought of pickled onions. I eat them straight out of the jar, I’m not ashamed to admit it :-)

  13. Lisa says:

    I loved reading this, pickled onions are one of my all time favourite things. I used to get up in the night and steal them out of the fridge when I was little. Thanks for the trip down memory lane :)

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