Basic pickled onions

Sometimes in life you just need a crunchy vinegary twang – so grab some onions and start pickling.

Now, in my naivety, I thought that pickled onions were a purely English thing, to be eaten with fish and chips, or with a ploughmans lunch.

I was wrong though it seems, the Swiss eat them as well served with raclette, in Hong Kong they are served as an appetizer in Cantonese restaurants, and the Americans (allegedly – according to an American) make horrible soggy ones.

I’m going to skip over all of that for a minute though, and stick to what I know, the traditional English pickled onion.

Pickling is an old way of preserving food, dating from before we had refrigeration, and you had to do something with the crop. In the Western world it’s all but superfluous for practical reasons, but we are still using this antiquated method just because it tastes so good. Simple dishes like crusty bread and cheese get a big wake up kick with the addition of a pickled onion or two.

A good pickled onion should be intense, both in flavour and crunch, if it doesn’t give you some stong resistance to being bitten, followed by a satisfying crunching sound, then you may as well just throw it away as far as I’m concerned.

You can buy special ‘pickling vinegars’ which will give you the generic pickled onion taste, but there is no reason why you can’t use any kind of vinegar that you like. White wine vinegar has been historically used, as has spirit vinegar, but I think that the best and deepest flavour comes from plain old malt vinegar. You can also pickle the onions just on their own, or add spices to the vinegar to give them a bit of a kick.

In theory there is no reason why you can’t use any type of onion that you like, but there are a couple of reasons why every commercial jar of pickled onions that you buy uses small varieties, like Pearl onions or Cipolla. The most obvious reason is that they fit into the jars, and the second reason is that the bigger the onion the longer you have to pickle them for before you can eat them and get that lovely vinegary taste all the way through. My personal favourite is to use shallots, they give a fantastic flavour when pickled, they are just a bit of a pain to peel.

There is no real recipe for pickling onions because really there are no hard and fast rules, some people will give you incredibly complex directions calling for various different types of spicing, or which need you to soak the onions in fresh brine two or three times. I’m not going to argue that none of that is good or that it doesn’t give good results, but here is the simplest basic technique that works well, and you can experiment and modify it as you like.

  1. First make some brine by dissolving salt in boiling water, you should use about 100g of salt for every litre of water, when you have done this leave the water to cool down, because if you put the onions in when it is still hot they will go soft. You will need enough brine to cover however many onions you are planning to use.

  2. Peel your onions, and then put them into the brine and leave them for at least 24 hours. You need to make sure that all of the onions are covered, which can be a bit tricky as they like to float up to the top, the easiest answer is to put a plate or saucepan lid with something heavy on top of it, on top of the onions.

  3. Take the onions out of the brine solution and drain them thoroughly.

  4. Pack the onions into jars, and cover them with your vinegar of choice. If you are planning to use any spices in the vinegar, then the best thing is to boil them in the vinegar beforehand, but make sure that the vinegar is completely cool again before you pour it over the onions or they will go soft.

  5. Seal the jars and leave them in a cool place to mature

You can eat the onions after about a week, but obviously the longer you leave them the more the flavour develops. I’d recommend leaving them for at least 6 weeks before using them.

  • katyboo1

    I love pickled onions. Shop bought I always go for Garners. Their pickled shallots are awesome. Some supermarkets are now introducing those italian onions that are pickled in balsamic vinegar, very sweet, very intense but quite nice.
    When I was a kid my parents used to grow a lot of fruit and veg and we would always pickle, onions, red cabbage etc. Lovely stuff.
    Except for pickled eggs – blee!

  • John Pope

    I think that pickled eggs are one of those things like Marmite – you either love them or hate them.

    I’m with you though, I think they are rancid.

  • mac

    Just have to make a dig, even if it is about onions. Just how can Americans make soggy onions? How dumb.
    I read the first paragraph and stopped. Your text is very hard to read and uninteresting.
    Soggy onions, yikes!!
    Soggy story is more like it.

  • John Pope

    It’s what an American friend told me, that somehow pickled onions that they bought in the States are less crunchy than ones they bought in England.

    As for how to make soggy onions, it’s easy – you just don’t wait for the water to cool down before you put the onions in it.

  • rosemary tong

    Hello, I am originally from East Yorkshire and hang my head in shame that I have never pickled onions. If possible could you send a recipe for spiced vinegar. I buy Sharwoods pickles here in British Columbia but they are very expensive, thought I would have a try at making them myself, wish me luck.

  • Steve Bennett

    To Rosemary

    I pickle onions myself. You can use ordinary vinegar but if you like a bit of “bite”, throw in some scotch bonnet chillies or ordinary hot chillies. Just peel the onions and put them in a jar with a bit of sugar and a pinch of salt. Add chillies to taste and vinegar. Leave them for at least 4 to 6 weeks. Lid needs to be screwed on by someone with a strong hand. Don’t waste the vinegar afterwards as it is perfect for chips or as a salad dressing. The marinated chillies can also be used in salads or curries.

  • don

    John i know what you mean about the soggy onions they are nasty Mac but you are probably up on that. the story was fine and not soggy. I remember visiting my grandmother in baltimore maryland and going to the corner store to get the best giant crunchy sour onions ever made. its been a long time since i have had one i can not get them where i live so i am forced to eat the tiny cocktail onions. thanks for the recipe i will try to make them hopefully they will be good.

  • Dan C

    Story was fine, great to see other people experimenting. I just made three batches, one with brown sugar and chilli flakes, one brown sugar and scotch bonnets and one with just honey (all three also had pickling spice).

    I used malt vinegar before but this time gone for clear pickling vinegar – I’ll let you know how they compare.

    Unfortunately it would seem that you get fools like Mac whichever site you go to where you can leave a comment. Some people just cant resist making stupid and pointless remarks if they dont understand something. Personally I found the article educational, easy to understand and helpful, as it seems did everyone else. Mind you, I suppose in every batch you always get a soggy one….

  • John

    As Steve and Dan have said, it’s great to throw some chillies in when you are pickling onions.

    I normally use whole small chillies rather than chilli flakes, because I don’t like the way that the flakes sometimes stick to the onions themselves.

    If you are using whole chillies, don’t forget to crush them slightly before you throw them in, so that more of the flavour escapes into the vinegar.

  • Taffy Tarr

    I have been using the same recipe as my Dad & Grand parents had prepared, which is basically the same as above but I make spiced malt vinegar and add it cooled to the jarred onions, also I add a dessert spoon of white sugar I find that it adds to the crunch Cheers

  • genezilla

    can anyone that lives in baltimore please if you could. the next time you see one of those LG jars of pickled onions at a store. write down the brand name or website where they are from. so i can try and order some online. thank you so much.

  • Kev

    I have been living in Asia now for three years and miss our family tradition of having pickled onions in malt vinegar at Christmas. Unfortunately I can not get hold of malt vinegar (not cheaply) so I will have ago with the clear vinegars I can get. Now I just have to pester my friends for empty jars. Great article. Thanks for the information, and hopefully for reigniting a Christmas tradition

  • Phil

    I do the same basic process.

    Trim of the worst of crud, maybe cut off the tops and bottoms just leaving the skins on. Brine them for 24 hours or so as suggested. Then the skins will just fall off much easier. Then i brined them again for 24 hours. Then in the vineager and chilli (small hot chillis sliced up and a few “cracked” black pepper corns)

    Oh dear they dont last very long though. :) too much temptation.


  • Angie

    Havent done Pickle onions in years but decided we wanted some with a kick…but in past notice they do go thought would google how to stop them going now more confused then ever some recipes say heat the vinegar others say paw straight on the onions..thought this would be so easy mistake to put right

    • John

      Hi Angie,

      The basic rule is that you should not put the onions into anything hot. You should make sure that both the brine and the vinegar are completely cool before pouring them over the onions to stop them from going soggy.

      If you want to add spices, then you should boil them in the vinegar, but then let it cool before pouring it over the onions.

  • FabDahling

    Thanks for writing this!
    My (now deceased) Aunt Mary used to make THE BEST pickled onions!
    Unfortunately, back then, I was more interested in eating them than learning how to make them. I remember them bobbing in a bowl….and the plate on top! She used brown vinegar, peppercorns, cloves and I think, mustard seeds. She had an exact count, no doubt, which is now lost….but I will experiment. I can hardly wait the 6 weeks to try the ones I just made. Makes me realize though, just how much she must have loved us all, to labour over jars and jars of onions and give them away…….

  • Paul

    Thanks forthe information. My family on the west coast of Tasmania (Australia) have been making pickled onions for generations so I grew up with them. I never remember my mother brining the onions first. I don’t see what the point is. They will not go soft as long as the spiced vinegar is cooled down first. Also, vinegar should ideally be added to the boiling liquid as well. Making pickled onions withut vinegar – yuck, sorry – that’s just not the traditional way of doing it. And if you have ever tasted pickled onions without vinegar added you will not like them.

  • AllyD

    Going to try these. Making my brine this morning before I go to work, then let the pickling commence!!

  • AllyD

    John? I’m brining as we speak. Will add my vinegar on Tuesday. Do I have to refrigerate or will my pantry shelf be okay for them to mature?


  • John

    Hi Ally,

    No they don’t need to be kept refrigerated, just somewhere dark and reasonably cool will be fine.

  • scottiechick77

    Im in New Zealand, and so miss the tradtional scottish chip shop pickled onions i used to eat.. so I am going to try and make these to keep in the pantry for when i have my next craving. Thanks for the information :-)

  • Paul

    Don’t store them in jars with metal lids either as the vinegar may corrode them. Much safer to use plastic. :) Even if you put plastic wrap over the neck before sealing the jar it will end up being messy.

  • AllyD

    Thank you John and Paul for your advice. I too love the traditional British malt vinegar pickled onions, however I couldn’t find malt vinegar of good quality at my local store. I’m resorting to balsamic with a little sugar and try one after 2 weeks. Wish me luck!

  • AllyD

    By the way I’m in Brooklyn, New York (born and raised in England). How do you get a profile pic on here?

  • AllyD

    Okay. I made my onions June 12th and refrained from tasting them until last week.. Wanted to use malt vinegar but couldn’t find a good British kind around here in Brooklyn. So seeing as though balsamic is plentiful here I used that with a little sugar and 3 whole garlic cloves, peeled and raw into the vinegar mix.

    I only made a small batch to try it, but that was a mistake. When my twin 9 yr old girls tried one, they all disappeared. They were awesome! You could get a garlic taste, but not too much, and the sugar in the balsamic tamed it a little to make my make-again Sweet Balsamic Pickled Onions. Thanks for all the tips for this recipe. i ended up creating a family favorite. Still looking for a good malt vinegar in bulk in the U.S.

    P.S. I think I got to try 4 of them. lol
    ….and POOF….they were gone! :)

  • sheila

    wy is it you can only buy the pickling onions to make near to christmas but not all through the year

    • Terry

      just purchase about 9 kg of pickling shallots on ebay, I am going to peel and brine them today

  • Ian D

    I have made my Pickled onions from this recipe many times and love them ( so do my Grandkids ). Only modification I make is to simmer a chopped garlic clove in some of the MALT vinegar and use when cool. I live in Canada and your comments about North Americans making their Pickled Onions soft and soggy is 100percent correct YEUK

  • Ca4ole

    there. The current Food on Friday is all about onions! So it would be great if you linked this
    in. This is the link . Wishing you very happy Holidays!

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  • Gary R


    I have put my onions in a wet salt brine over night for 24 hours and just drained them. They are all soft ! I assume this isn’t correct ?



    • porkandgin

      No, they shouldn’t be all soft. Was the brine completely cold when you put the onions into it?

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