The Case for Pickled Onions

Onions are available year-round, so why preserve them? Because the spicy-sweet vinegared variety is just so good. An ode to a transformative pickle.

Matthew Mead / AP

Okay, anyone who has read this space for very long should know that onions or garlic in some form or another appear in pretty much every recipe I create. I love onions. I love growing them, I love eating them, and I especially love finding them wild.

Whether we're talking wild ramps, which don't grow here in California, the skinny field garlics, delicate French shallots, stately leeks, or those bawdy sweet onions—so luscious they tempt you to eat them raw, like an apple—I love them all. I sure hope the allium clan is good for you, because I probably consume close to 75 heads of garlic and 100 pounds of onions a year.

My onion year starts with the long-storing, humble yellow onion. A sulphurous bitch she is, but despite making me cry on a routine basis I adore her anyway. Call me Tammy Wynette. In return, however, she is a constant companion, rarely spoiling and willing to help me make scores of recipes that much better.

Since I live in California, Fraulein Yellow must contend with a nubile competitor: the winter green onion. I grow several slender varieties that last all winter long, but my favorite is a Japanese onion that never sets a bulb. It is sweet for a scallion, and using it in a hearty winter dish makes me think of spring, when everything is young and green. The regal leek also persists through my winters, but she is aloof and yearns only to be included in classical French dishes. Leeks are the ladies who lunch.

Holly A. Heyser

Spring brings the garlic chives, regular chives, and bunching onions. I revel in this rave of green alliums from March to May, and the hits of that party are our local green garlics and the fresh young ramps I get from back east.

By late May, the first gigantic sweet onions burst on the scene. Stockton Sweets and Vidalias, and for those of you who live around Sacramento, the epic Placer Sweets. These are sweet onions so large that just one will make an entire serving of caramelized onions for a family; they're like that big girl who has all the curves in all the places she oughta. The Germans have a term that applies perfectly to both: zaftig.

Summer brings the new garlic, that garlic that is fully separated into bulbs, but the sheaths around them are still supple, the cloves still loaded with moisture. This is the time to gorge yourself on garlic, when its bite is tamed with an almost floral follow-up. Make your 40-clove chicken recipe in early June, folks, and you'll understand why it's a classic.

Green onions of all shapes and varieties abound all the way to the cold weather, in November. That's when we all fall in love again with Fraulein Yellow. She waits for you to return, knowing you always will.

This is my year. So why, you might ask, would I ever need to hold onto any of my allium loves longer than during the times when they are fresh and bright? I suspect part of it is because, like all people, we want most what we can no longer have. So I pickle my onions. In fact, I pickle quite a lot of onions.

Now, pickling onions, garlics, and ramps is not the same thing as carrying around a faded picture of a lost love in your wallet. That's just an image. A good pickled onion, on the other hand, is something entirely different, something transformative.

I am especially fond of pickled sweet onions. My zaftig friends don't stick around very long, as their moisture content rots them in a fraction of the time Fraulein Yellow can handle sitting on a shelf. Plus, their large layers make them awkward in tight settings. Ever try to do a brunoise with a Vidalia? Can't be done.

Hank Shaw

But sweet onions are excellent pickled. I like to push that sweetness with a sweet-and-sour pickle, too. My pickled sweet onions also have a little ginger, a little mint. These onions are arguably the world's best hamburger topping. Or if you feel like Mexican, the best possible topping for cochinita pibil, the best braised pork dish I've ever eaten.

I've done variations on that pickle for more than a decade. What I'd never done was pickle ramp bulbs. And I would never have, until I got several pounds of them from Earthy Delights. Now I've eaten lots of ramps before, and I'd always wondered about that stink they supposedly possess. I have never encountered it. Guess I never worked with mature ramp bulbs before.

The FedEx guy winced as he said, "What on earth do you have here?" Ramps, I said. He shook his head and walked away. I got them in the house and boy howdy did they have a powerful aroma! I put them in the fridge.

Hmmm ... I thought. I needed to deal with these fast or they'd smell up the whole fridge. Ramp bulbs, I decided, are the divas of the allium sisterhood. Powerful, beautiful, lush, and bold, they demand your attention. Now.

Holly A. Heyser

There was no way I could eat several pounds of ramp bulbs before they wrecked the fridge, so I decided to pickle them. But how? Not too long ago I read about a pickle in Medieval Persia that contained saffron, honey, and "aromatic herbs." Sounded pretty cool, so I decided that thyme would be the lucky aromatic herb to spend a year with my ramp bulbs.

I can't tell you how they tasted. They're not done yet. My full recipe for pickled ramps with saffron and honey is here, and yes you can substitute garlic or pearl onions. But even though I can't tell you yet how they taste, I can tell you they sure are pretty.

Starting at these I am now certain that ramp bulbs are divas: they are calling to me to let them out of their golden cage, and I won't be able to resist for very long. I will eat them, enjoy them immensely, get stinky breath and no one else will want to be around me. It'll just be me and my ramps. And I'll be okay with that.

Until they're gone. That's when all the other onions will return to their rightful place on my plate. Especially Fraulein Yellow. She's always there for me, and always will be.

More pickle recipes:
Pickled cauliflower, Italian Restaurant Style
Preserved baby artichokes, with chile and juniper
How to preserve grape leaves, for making Greek dolmas later

Recent posts by Hank Shaw:
How to Embrace an Overlooked Berry
A Latin American Fish Fiesta: 4 Recipes
Cooking Outside Your Comfort Zone