This recipe started with a 10 pound honey jar. Did you know they make those? Not only that, there are people out there who actually buy them, like my friend Sarah. Now, to me, the only logical use for that much honey is a massive mead-brewing operation (think of the thousands of pieces of toast you’d have to go through otherwise), but in any case, she did the hard work and finished it all herself. It was my job to find an exciting use for the empty jar.
I already had several jars of preserved lemons on hand, and I couldn’t think of anything else I could make in such a huge quantity that wouldn’t go bad before I finished the jar. Jam was too messy, summer vegetables weren’t in season yet, and no one could eat that much kimchi. No one.
I was stumped until my father thought of pickled onions. I picked up two pounds of tiny white boiling onions, which are slightly larger than pearl onions and easier to peel. Public service announcement: don’t put yourself or anyone else through the torture of peeling them raw, ever again. It’s easier to top-and-tail them, drop them in boiling water for a minute to blanch, then pop them out of their skins. You’ll lose some of the outer onion layers, but if this bothers you, take a good hard look at them sitting on the counter and ask yourself if those little scraps of onion are worth an hour of your life.
I’d never pickled onions before, and the ingredients in the recipe worried me. Vinegar and salt made sense, but honey with onions? Would the unappealingly-named “boiling onions” taste any good, or would the recipe fall flat without wild onions? During the month that the jar sat quietly in the back of the pantry, I kept bumping into it when I went to the cupboard for other ingredients, and I was convinced that my dad would have to eat the whole jar on his own.
When it came time to crack the jar, I found I was wrong. The melt-in-the-mouth texture of the onions is similar to caramelised onions, and the flavour is sweet and sour from the honey and vinegar that marry surprisingly well. There’s no word for the complex acid-fermented taste of pickled foods, but there should be, because these onions are it. They’re ideal for sandwiches and raw dishes because their flavour isn’t as pungent as raw onions, but you can slice them into most dishes in place of regular onions.
Notes & Variations:
Pickled onions fall solidly into the weekend recipe category, so give yourself ample time to do the prep work. Like preserved lemons and other pickles, this is not an instant gratification recipe. If you, like me, need an immediate reward at the end of a weeknight recipe, save this for a lazy Sunday.
I changed the original Food & Wine recipe, omitting the fried rosemary and rounding out the base flavours with mustard, bay leaf, and traditional pickling spices.
Pearl onions and wild onions can be substituted for boiling onions. Prepare pearl onions in the same way as boiling onions. For wild onions, simply top-and-tail them and peel off only the very tough outer layers; there’s no need to parboil them. Avoid using regular onions, which are too large for the pickling liquid to penetrate.
Makes about 1 extra-large or 3 standard jars
2 lbs. wild or boiling onions
1 cup honey
1 cup champagne or white wine vinegar
1 cup white vinegar
½ cup water
Juice of one lemon
3 tbsp. whole-grain mustard
10 whole allspice berries
10 whole peppercorns
3 bay leaves
½ tsp. kosher salt
- Prepare onions by dropping them whole into a pot of boiling water. Allow them to blanch for one minute, then drain and run them under cold water. Once cool, cut off the tops and bottoms of each onion and slip off the tough skin.
- Put the onions into a large saucepan with all remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat
- then pour into the jar with the onions, being careful to avoid splashes. There should be about ½ inch of headspace left in the jar. If you don’t have enough liquid, add more white vinegar.
- Seal the jar by boiling it, and then leave it in a cool, dark place for one month before opening, to allow the onions to fully pickle.
Recipe adapted from Food & Wine.