Rich rarely passes up an opportunity to mention his gherkins. “Look at how magnificent they have grown” he squeaks all summer long. “Behold my giant jar of crisp, pickled gherkins” he boasts whenever I pop round his house for another tedious team meeting.
While it’s true that his gherkins are firm, knobbly and sour enough to make a chef blush, I much prefer to grow and pickle onions, believing that no vegetable tastes as good after a prolonged bath in vinegar than the princely edible allium.
Cracking open a jar of my pickled onions has become a Christmas day tradition, as ritualistic as the pulling of crackers, the flambéing of Christmas pudding and the opening of a bottle of strong, dark beer as soon as breakfast has settled.
So now, with another November pickling safely negotiated, I feel the time is right to share my methods, giving you all the chance of getting one up on Rich and his jar of knobbly gherkins.
A step-by-step guide to pickling onions
1 First, choose your onions
You can use any type of onion (slice them if they’re big) but shallots are the best. There are even some varieties that have been specially marked out for their pickling excellence which are available to sow or buy if you look hard enough. The key attribute for prime onion pickleability is a bullet-like firmness.
2 Next, peel your onions
You could reach straight for the knife to whip off the brown skins but, for a more precise and easy peel, first soak them for five minutes in a bowl of boiling water and rinse until cool enough to handle. Trim the bare minimum from the tops and bottoms (excess trimming could cause more layers to slip off) and the skins should peel away with ease.
3 Salt your onions
Now roll your bald onions in salt and leave in a bowl overnight, rinsing the salt away in the morning before patting dry. Although this stage is optional, the salt-and-rinse method will extract moisture from within the onion and you will be rewarded with a crisper, crunchier, firmer pickle in the long run. Worth the extra effort.
4 Prepare your pickling vinegar
You could use cider vinegar.
You could use wine vinegar.
You could use clear distilled vinegar for clarity of onion.
Or you could use a combination of all three.
But for the best results use good ol’ dirty brown malt vinegar. You’ll need roughly an equal volume of water to weight of onions – ie 100ml vinegar for every 100g of onions. And you also need 40g white sugar per 100g onions.
Pour the vinegar into a pan and add your sugar and the allaimportant pickling spices. I go for the following:
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon of black pepper
1 bay leaf.
I also produce an extra jar with a teaspoon of dried chilli added, should anyone dare complain that my standard pickle isn’t spicy enough.
Gently heat the vinegar and spices for five to ten minutes (don’t let it boil), stirring to dissolve the sugar, then set aside to cool.
5 Pack your pickles
Now is the time to pack your onions into jars. You’ve sterilised your jars first, yes? If not, wash in hot water and dry in an oven on a low heat. Or chuck them in the dishwasher. Make sure you allow them to cool before the cooled vinegar goes anywhere near the glass.
Place the onions into the jar leaving as little space between them as possible (think like a dry-stone-waller and build layers of onions according to size and shape). Fill with the pickling vinegar, including the spices (although I always remove the bay leaf), until the onions are covered. Seal the jar and store somewhere cool and dark, six weeks being an optimum minimum length of time (but don’t worry if you need to eat them sooner).
Pickle perfection is as easy as that. Enjoy.
To take a gander at Rich’s gherkins and learn how he pickles them, head on over to this page