As we head into autumn our annual preserving season comes to an end with the pickled onions and quinces being two last additions to the pantry. I’m something of a pickled onion connoisseur, always on the lookout for the best pickled onion recipe.
A few years ago I found Thanks Shallot, a Blenheim company run by Stephen and Sally Harnett. Stephen grows perfect pickling onions – tight, small and round, not large, soft and oblong. He sells them at the Blenheim Farmers Market each Sunday. He also comes across to the Nelson Saturday market every second week. We used to sell them and one year we gave away a copy of his Great Gran’s recipe with each little 2 kg. sack of onions.
The recipe started heated discussions among customers about the best recipe for pickled onions so we asked for copies of their favourite recipe and were amazed at how many different ones came out of the woodwork. We shortlisted 8 different pickled onion recipes that covered the main themes and set to work putting down a few jars of each for a great taste off.
One Saturday we lined up the jars, printed the tasting forms and let the onions loose on customers in the store. Thirty-five customers, mostly blokes, took the challenge to eat each of the 8 pickled onions on offer, write their comments and vote for their favourite. They took it seriously. Some brave souls had to go back for seconds just to confirm the winner before they cast their votes. More recipes came forth during the day, rum and balsamic vinegar and also a golden syrup one that sounded nice.
Here are the great taste-off results, followed by the top 3 recipes and some tips on making and growing perfect pickled onions.
|Pickled Onion Recipe||Votes||Overall Verdict|
|Cider Vinegar, Chillies, no sugar, no boiling brine||1||Takes the enamel off your teeth|
|Red Wine Vinegar, Coriander, Cumin, White Peppercorns, Honey||1||Too posh nosh and fancy – real pickled onions don’t have coriander seeds.|
|Malt Vinegar, Brown Sugar, Black Peppercorns (Heather’s Mum’s Recipe)||10||The Classic. Overall winner. Good balance. Many wanted to vote for this one twice. Everything a pickled onion should be. Mum will be pleased.|
|White Wine Vinegar, Sherry, Brown Sugar & Honey – MCT customer CarolJane||9||The inoffensive favourite. Softened by a bit of sherry and honey, with milder cider instead of malt vinegar. The sociable pickled onion. A close second.|
|Pickled Onions in Curry Sauce from Roy & Dawn Ennor – Richmond||6||Either love them or loathe them – pickled onions in curry sauce are polarising. If you love them apparently you use the sauce on your baked chops – hmmm – a real Aunty Daisy frugal tip if ever there was.|
|Cider Vinegar, Honey & Black Peppercorns – Alma’s Recipe||5||A bit of both, sweetness of honey and spice of black peppercorns.|
|Malt Vinegar, Cloves, Chillies, Black Peppercorns – Nan Harnett’s||1||From a time when pickles were pickles. Go, Nan Harnett. 12 whole cloves, 6 whole dried chilies, black peppercorns, no sweet stuff and full-on malt vinegar.|
|Curry Sauce 1941 Truth Recipe Cook Book – but no flour.||2||Nope – you need the flour to make a good wallpaper paste of a sauce if you’re going the curried route.|
NZ’s Top 3 Pickled Onion Recipes
1st Place – Heather’s Mum’s Pickled Onions
Soak peeled onions overnight in a brine of 1 1/2 cups of common salt and 4 pints of water. Next day drain and dry onions. Pack them into clean jars and add 6-8 peppercorns per large jar. Warm 750mls of malt vinegar and melt 500gms of brown sugar or honey into it. Cool, and pour over the onions in the jars. Seal and leave at least 14 days before eating.
2nd Place – Sherried Pickled Onions – Carol Jane MCT Customer
Soak 4.5kg of onions in 1 cup of common salt and 10 cups of water overnight (I peeled them and sprinkled salt over them in a crockery bowl overnight) Boil 450g honey 450g brown sugar and 2ltrs of white vinegar. Let it cool completely then add 500mls sherry. Rinse salt of onions and let them drain then pack in clean jars and pour the liquid over. Leave for one month before eating.
3rd Place – Pickled Onions in Curry Sauce – Roy & Dawn Ennor, Richmond.
1lb caster sugar
1 tablespoon all spice
1 teaspoon mustard
2 teaspoons tumeric
1 quart vinegar
1 tablespoon ground cloves
3 large teaspoons flour
1 tablespoon curry
Sprinkle onions with salt and leave overnight and then dry. Bring vinegar and sugar to the boil add other ingredients mixed with some of the vinegar and bring to the boil. Fill the jars. Ready in 5 weeks.
Tips on Preparing the Perfect Pickled Onion
- Preparation is key to achieving the perfect crunchy pickled onion. Customers had theories on whether you soaked your peeled onions in salty brine or dry salted by sprinkling with salt. Sprinklers claimed their method only extracted the juices and didn’t load the onions up with water. I am a sprinkler.
- Other tips include close peeling at the base and top to hold your onion together and everyone was in agreement on the need to cool the brine completely before adding to the onions so as not to get a soft onion – which no one likes.
- Theories on peeling them without tears abounded. Light a candle, soak them in warm water (don’t do this – see soft onion above), peel them underwater (the onions, not you), wear goggles (probably the most foolproof).
- Finally the great question of how long to leave them before you eat them – some say 2 weeks, some 3 and some 5. I can vouch for the fact that well prepared pickled onions get better with age – up to two years after one exuberant pickling season in our house.
Growing the Perfect Pickling Onion
And when it comes to growing the perfect pickling onion, we managed to get Stephen to share some of his tips with us. Here’s me growing fancy little pickling darlings like “Purpelette”, the Italian flat “Borretanna” and the wee cutie “Pearl Drop” for my pickled onions but what does Stephen grow? Nothing but big old Pukekohe Long Keepers. He tells me he’s shied away from the little dainty varieties that are supposed to grow pickler’s because they often end up with oblong egg-shaped onions.
Stephen plants a late variety and he reckons he is pushing the boundaries of how they should be grown. His regime is treat ‘em mean, he plants them a full two months later than you should (October), gives them no water or rich soil and harvests them in mid to late March. If your soil is too rich they tend to develop thick necks, (as we all do with too much good food), and the bulb doesn’t tend to develop. Deprive them of nutrients and they’ll put all their effort into the bulb and not the tops.
So there you have it, folks, how to grow and make the perfect pickled onion. Visit Thanks Shallot at the Nelson market and see if you can hit Stephen up for his wife Sally’s recipe. I couldn’t manage to get that out of him. She does several thousand jars a year and you can buy those from him too if you’ve done your dash pickling this year. We’d love to hear your recipes and variations too.