Let’s get pickled
Simon Lester explains how to bottle your own crunchy pickled onions without (too many) tears
Simon Lester reveals how to pickle onions without tears
‘At first your eyes will run, but don’t wipe them–just dab them with a tissue. The crying will pass’
THERE’S nothing worse than a soggy pickled onion. When you’ve been looking forward to that tangy crunch that only a perfect pickle can deliver, it’s awful to be let down by a pappy imposter. Luckily, my family doesn’t suffer from this gastronomic disaster, as perfect homemade pickled onions have been a matter of course for as long as I can remember.
My mother was an inveterate pickler, as was her father, who was a great eater of onions raw or pickled. After years of watching and helping at this autumnal event, I took on the mantle of the family pickler when Mum passed away.
I pickle enough onions to give a couple of jars to family and friends and have spare jars to take along to shoots, on top of enough to see me through the year. And I’m pleased to say that my onions still crunch one year on. First, select your onions. Go to a proper greengrocer and get some good firm pickling onions or shallots, which are a little sweeter. They do vary in size, so, if possible, buy medium-sized ones that will pack tightly in the jar, leaving only a few gaps between. A good greengrocer will order the exact amount (I usually go for a sackful) and the type you require.
Second, it’s imperative to purchase a high-quality pickling vinegar. After many years of spicing her own malt version, Mum started using Sarson’s ready-made pickling vinegar, which comes in a handy pickling jar.
A large pack of cooking salt is next on the list. Now, assemble a selection of varying sized jars with well-fitting lids, a sharp knife, a large bowl, a colander, a large meat plate, tea towels and a box of tissues.
The fun starts as you peel the onions. Don’t overface yourself—you don’t have to do them in one hit, just do them in batches that suit you. I measure out three colanderfuls, as that’s what my Victorian meat plate will hold. I put them into a big bowl, select a good TV programme or some music and sit down to make my first cut, topping, tailing and peeling each onion until they’re clean and shiny.
At first, your eyes will run, but don’t wipe them—just dab them with a tissue—keep watching the television or concentrating on the radio programme and go into automatic mode. The crying will pass, I promise. Finally, carry out a qualitycontrol check—any soft or discoloured onions need to be rejected.
Once the colander is full, get up, stretch your legs, take the onions into the kitchen, put them on the meat plate and sprinkle them liberally with salt. Make a drink and repeat the process. After the last batch is put on the plate, sprinkle it with salt and cover your work with a tea towel. Go to bed and hope your spouse likes onions.
In the morning, remove the tea towel and you’ll see that the salt has drawn out lots of liquid from the onions. Take a colander of them and rinse in cold water until all the salt has gone, then get two dry tea towels, pour the onions on one, cover with the other and roll them around—it’s essential that they’re so dry they squeak.
Line up your sparkling-clean jars and pack them tightly with gleaming, dry onions. Using jars of various sizes ensures you don’t waste any. Once packed, pour in the vinegar so that it covers the onions and seal the lids.
Dating the jar is optional—the onions are good to go from four to six weeks after they’re pickled and can be enjoyed for a long time before they go off. However, it’s better to pickle over a longer period in order to stagger the shelf life of the onions in your larder. Place the jars in a dark place and forget about them until the craving for a pickled onion becomes too much.
For a variation, try adding a chilli or two. I would strongly recommend labelling these jars and warning the recipient that the contents might be a bit spicy, as they can be rather a shock to the system. Who you decide to give them to will depend on the extent of your Christmas spirit!