In an ideal world there will always be a big jar of home made pickled onions in the cupboard. Everyone loves them so much and they are one of the first things I learnt to make from Betty, my mother-in-law. I used to have a copy of her spice mix but now I buy ready made sachets and use far more than recommended and bulk up the mixture with extra bay leaves and dried red chillies. Home made pickled onions are a labour of love but over the years I’ve learnt how to take the sting out of the process. They are still a messy, smelly job spread over two days but I can’t imagine not bothering because it’s impossible to buy decent pickled onions. I’ve come to the conclusion that it is worth making a big batch and to get yourself organised so that the work is as minimal and painless as possible.
We like our pickled onions crisp, brown all the way through and to pack a punch as well as being full of interesting flavours. They require at least three, preferably four, weeks maturing in a dark place and get hotter the longer the pickles are left; superb, to my mind, after a year. I always put loads of the pickles into the jars with the onions and pickling vinegar. You can moderate the mixture, or add very little of the spices to the jars, for a milder cure. Onion stained hands can be clean up with lemon juice.
It takes between 35-45 minutes to peel 1.8kg of small onions, slightly longer for shallots. So that’s about two hours for the quantity specified here. Work in a well-ventilated room, preferably at a sink with a continual dribble from the cold tap. To make peeling easier, put a couple of pounds of onions at a time in the sink and cover with boiling water. Leave for a couple of minutes, then drain and refresh in running cold water. This kills some of their tear-inducing smells and makes peeling easier. Use a small, very sharp, stainless steel knife – which you will need to sharpen regularly as you work – and peel the onions from the top, leaving the root end till last. Peel into a plastic carrier-bag and tip the peelings onto the compost heap, or tie the bag and put it straight into the dustbin outside.
Have ready china gratin dishes or stainless steel oven trays for the overnight salting process or line ordinary metal oven trays with foil. I sterilize kilner and jam jars in the dishwasher or oven.
Fills 2 x 1 litre kilner jars or equivalent
3.6kg small pickling onions or shallots
225g coarse cooking or sea salt
2 litres malt vinegar
8 cartons/sachets pickling spices
6 bay leaves
about 10 dried red chillies
Peel the onions as described above. Lay out in glass or china dishes or roasting pan lined with silver foil, generously immerse in salt. Cover with foil and leave (preferably outside) for 24 hours. Meanwhile, bring the vinegar and spices to the boil, simmer for 5 minutes, cover and leave to cool – again, preferably outside, because the smells linger.
Rinse the salt off the onions, pat dry and pack into sterilized jars. Cover with the vinegar, spoon in some of the spices, chillies and bay leaves, seal and store in the dark for at least 4 weeks before eating.