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