Gordon loves cooking and experimenting with food. He loves making new dishes, particularly with unusual or underused ingredients.
Practically a British Staple
Pickled onions are popular throughout the UK. They are sold in fish and chip shops as an accompaniment to fish and chips, and they are bought in supermarkets in jars to accompany many different dishes, such as the simple cold salad featured above.
It is a shame in many ways that more people don't pickle onions at home in modern times as a bit of experimentation with potential pickling spices can produce magnificent results, tailored to suit individual tastes. The basics of how to pickle onions are the same in each instance and are covered below, but the spices which can be incorporated are many. This article features just a fraction of the combinations which can be employed.
What Type of Onions Are Suited to Pickling?
The actual types of onions which are suitable for pickling are many, but they generally fall into one of two categories. There are the bigger varieties such as those featured on this page—around an inch to an inch in a half in diameter—and there are the smaller kind, sometimes referred to as silverskin onions.
These onions were bought from the supermarket, where they were actually labelled as pickling onions and are of the type likely to be found in British fish and chip shops. If you are in doubt about which types of onions available to you are suitable for pickling, ask the store for advice.
Step 1: Peel and Salt the Onions
It is important when peeling onions for pickling that you remove as little of the flesh of the onions as possible.
- Start by cutting a thin slice off the top and bottom of each onion. All you want to do is remove any remaining root and stem.
- Either with a knife or with your fingers, proceed to strip the skin away. You will find there is a thin, almost plastic-like membrane under the skin which should also be removed. This is a bit of an awkward and time-consuming job—depending upon how many onions you are pickling—but it is important to take your time and do it properly, not only to ensure the best results but to avoid a nasty cut with the knife.
- When the onions are peeled, place them in a glass or stone bowl and sprinkle them generously with sea salt. Stir them to ensure even coating and cover the bowl with plastic wrap.
- Leave them in the salt for twelve to twenty-four hours. This helps the different layers of the onion to expand slightly and be more receptive to the pickling spices and vinegar. Do not leave the onions in the salt for any longer than twenty-four hours as this will cause them to break down too much and become overly soft and mushy.
Top Tip to Prevent Crying When Peeling Onions
It is a common problem when peeling onions that the process can cause the eyes to water, sometimes quite severely. There are a great many theories as to how this effect can be prevented or at least minimised. There is one method, however, that is foolproof for preventing tears from being shed when peeling onions: Have someone else peel them on your behalf!
Step 2: Prepare and Pack Your Jars
- The jars and lids which you are going to use to make your pickled onions should be sterilised and dried. If you are going to be using jars with metal lids, you will need to put a piece of plastic between the lid and the jar to prevent the vinegar from corroding the lid.
- Put the salted onions in a colander and rinse under running water. Drain well.
- Pack the onions tightly in to your jar or jars. For an approximately one-pint jar like this, add half a teaspoon of sugar, one teaspoon of whole mustard seeds and one crumbled dried bay leaf.
- Put some malt pickling vinegar in to a jug and pour in to the jar to fill completely, ensuring all the onions are fully covered. If desired, the vinegar can be diluted to produce a slightly less acidic taste. Use three parts vinegar to one part cold water.
- Take a sheet of plastic wrap about ten inches square and fold it over twice to form a four-layered, five-inch square. Lay it over the open jar and press in to place to seal. Put the lid on and tighten it.
- It is important to label your jar with the pickling date but when you are experimenting with pickling spices, you should also include on the label details of which spices were used for your future reference.
- The onions should now be stored in a cool, dark place for a minimum of four weeks to pickle but six to eight weeks will produce even better results.
- Once the jars are opened, they should be stored in the refrigerator and the onions consumed within a couple of weeks.
Try Different Spices
If you buy a bag of pickling onions, why not experiment with different spices in each jar? Other spices which are commonly included are:
- black peppercorns,
- cardamom seeds, and
- lots more
It is even possible to buy pre-combined pickling spices from your supermarket. Remember only to label your jars so that you can remember which spices are in each and that you can, through time, develop your own favourite spice mix.
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