Recipe: Pickled Onions

Want to feast your eyes on something beautiful? Look no further. Behold and gaze upon one of the most beautiful sights known to the food preservation world:

I had to make it extra-big. It's just so pretty.
I know they look a little bit like strawberries. I know they look like Valentine's Day in a jar. But those, my friends, are pickled red onions about to be processed in a water bath.

As you may remember, I like canning in small batches. It takes the fear out of it for me, and makes it a fun, quick project instead of a long, tedious one. I filled three half-pint jars with pickled onions, processed them, and had the kitchen tidied up and from start to finish it only took me about an hour.

If you love pickled onions but don't love canning (or just aren't ready to try), this recipe is for you. Pickled onions can be made without canning and will keep just fine in the fridge for several weeks.

Pickled Onions (makes 2 pints)

  • 2 large onions
  • 1 1/2 cups vinegar, diluted to 5% acidity. I used white vinegar here but you could use apple cider or red wine vinegar as well.
  • 1-2 Tbsp honey
  • Pinch salt (I used red Hawaiian sea salt)
  • Optional: Whole cloves, cinnamon stick, whole allspice, star anise, ginger (experiment!)
  • Optional: 5-10 drops red food coloring or beet juice (red onions will lose their color over time after canning; food coloring will keep them that beautiful pink color)
If you're planning to can your onions, begin by filling up a deep pot with water and putting it on the stove. You want it to be boiling by the time the rest of your steps are done. This is also a good time to wash and sanitize your jars, either by hand washing in hot water or by running them through a dishwasher cycle and rinsing well. Put the jars in the water as it heats up to sterilize and keep them clean. Put the lids (the part with the rubber) in a bowl and, when the water boils, scoop a little water over the lids to soften the rubber. Don't boil the lids.

Peel your onions. Try not to be stupid and get onion juice in any paper cuts you might have on your hands (I speak from experience). Put them down and take a moment to think about how beautiful a peeled red onion is.

You know it's true.

Then, gird up your loins, grab your chef's knife, and start slicing those suckers up.

If you're like me, this is going to be the point where you almost quit. Onions are a misery to cut. I had to flee my kitchen twice because my eyes simply got so overwhelmed by the potency of these onions that they refused to continue seeing things. Tears steaming down my face, all I could do was stand there and blink in the middle of my living room, holding my onion-y chef's knife in one hand and trying to remember not to rub my eyes with my onion-y other hand. It was full on chemical warfare--Mrs. Scrimp vs. the onions, and the onions came very close to winning.

Start slicing the onions at one of the ends, so that you end up with a series of discs made up of concentric rings, about 1/16"-1/8" thick. Then, quarter those discs and break the rings apart into individual slices. Try not to go completely blind. I wish you luck with this task.

As soon as you finish cutting up your onions, shove them hastily into a pyrex or other lidded container and seal those bad boys up in the hope that whatever remaining deadly onion fumes they have to release will be safely contained.

In a small pot (nonreactive, if you've got one), bring the vinegar, honey, salt, and any spices to a boil. If you are planning to add food coloring to keep the onions from turning white, add that now. Add the onions and cover before the vinegar and onion fumes overwhelm you.

N.B. Did you know that during the 1918 flu epidemic, people recommended boiling vinegar with onions and hot peppers all day to clear bad air out of a house? Whatever else it did, I'm sure it certainly helped people keep their sinuses clear. 

Cook the onion for 2-5 minutes, but no longer. You don't want it to get too soft. Pull the pot off the heat and prepare your jars for filling.

Using whatever implements you may have handy (I used tongs and a measuring cup), fill the jars with onions and then pour the remaining vinegar-honey mixture over the onions, leaving 1/8" headspace at the top of the jars. Wipe rims clean, add lids, and screw the rings on just as tight as you can get them with one finger and no tighter. Immerse in boiling water and process for 10 minutes.

Pickled onions should sit in the jar for at least 2-3 days before being eaten, so try to avoid the temptation to crack right into one of those jars for as long as you can. I know it's hard. I've been there.

Non-Canning Directions

Wash your jars or other containers in hot water, but skip all the boiling. Cook the onions in vinegar as directed above, but after you transfer them into their jars, you can just put a lid on and pop them right in the fridge. Give them a few days before you try eating them, to really let the flavors set. Without heat processing, pickled onions should last for a week or two.

Linked at Simple Lives Thursday, Fresh Bites Friday, Preparedness Challenge, and Real Food Freaks.

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