Pickled Red Onions

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Learn how to make quick pickled red onions, ready in just 30-minutes! They add a bold, sweet and tangy flavor to any dish like tacos, burritos, sandwiches, and salads.

Pickled red onions in a glass jar.
Table of Contents
  1. Onion selection
  2. Slicing the onions
  3. Vinegar selection
  4. Sweetener selection
  5. Make the pickling liquid
  6. Soak the onions
  7. Try different flavoring agents
  8. Serve this with
  9. FAQ
  10. Pickled Red Onions Recipe

Homemade pickled onions are the easiest condiment you’ll ever make. It’s just five simple pantry ingredients and takes a few minutes to prepare. Making a concentrated vinegar and sweetener solution rapidly infuses the raw, spicy onions. 

Marinating the slices for just 30-minutes transforms the taste and makes it more vibrant in color. Add them to make dishes more colorful and exciting. The best part is that you can make them a week or two in advance just to grab and top.

Ingredients for pickled onions with labels.

Onion selection

I use red onions because they have a good balance of sweet and spicy taste. The colorful purple and white layers make for an attractive condiment to garnish any dish. I like to use medium-sized onions for more rings. Those are about 6 ounces in weight and 3-inches or smaller in width. Any larger, and you’ll need to halve the onion to fit into jars.

Other types of onions can be used, like yellow, white, or shallots. Each will give a different flavor dimension. Mix them up for an exciting combination.

Recipe Resources

Slicing the onions

The thinner the onions, the quicker they will pickle. Use a sharp chef’s knife for cutting. Target an ⅛-inch thickness for a skinny slice so that it does not overpower the dish. Alternatively, a ¼-inch thick piece gives prominent bites.

When sliced lengthwise from root to stem, the onions will be milder in flavor and have a tougher bite. Slicing crosswise against the grain will be more intense but tender. I often slice smaller onions into rings for a pretty presentation. A mandoline works well for this particular task.

Vinegar selection

You can use various types of vinegar for this recipe. For proper pickling, the fermented liquid is prized for its tart and astringent taste, mainly from acetic acid—target 5% vinegar concentration. The choice comes down to flavor profile, color, and vinegar strength. I use a combination of two. 

White vinegar is clear in color, with a clean, strong, and harsh pungency. I use equal amounts of apple cider vinegar to balance the taste and add dimension. It’s more mellow in tartness, with a fruity aroma. Rice vinegar, red and white wine vinegar, and champagne vinegar are great choices. If you only have one, it’s okay to stick to a single type. Avoid balsamic vinegar because it will give an unappealing dark tint.

Sweetener selection

To balance the tartness of the vinegar and sulfur notes of the onion, you need a sweetener. I like honey because it gives a more complex taste and golden hue. Pure maple syrup is also a good choice if you want a caramel finish. 

Granulated sugar is often used for a clean sweetness. It doesn’t taste as sweet as honey, so I recommend increasing the amount slightly. I prefer the pickled onions on the sweeter side. However, you can reduce the level based on your preference. It can even be omitted but will taste harsh.

Stirring a pot of pickling liquid with a wooden spoon.

Make the pickling liquid

The essential ingredients needed to pickle onions are acidic vinegar, sweetener, and salt. Water is often added to dilute the zest and taste of the vinegar, especially if stored for more extended periods. The water is omitted for this quick pickled red onion recipe because we want the acid to be concentrated. The solution briefly boils to let the sugar and salt dissolve quickly.

Soak the onions

Once the hot pickling liquid is done heating, pour it over the onions. If you’re making it in advance to enjoy throughout the week, add the sliced onions directly into a storage container like a glass mason jar, at least 16 ounces in size, or split between two 8-ounce jars. Soak in a heatproof bowl at room temperature if you plan to serve right away. 

Over time the acetic acid will dilute the strong sulfurous compounds in the onion and soften the vegetable. If you prefer a more crisp texture, let the liquid cool slightly before brining. The process takes about 30-minutes. The flavor will be bright, bursting with a tangy taste and lingering sweetness.

Pouring yellow liquid into a bowl of onions cut into rings.

Try different flavoring agents

  • Sliced garlic cloves for extra allium flavor
  • Whole peppercorns for a spicy taste
  • Red pepper flakes or whole dried chilies for a lingering heat
  • A sprig of thyme or bay leaf for herbaceous notes
  • Cloves, allspice berries, or a cinnamon stick for a warm spice taste
  • Pickling spice blend, typically a mix of mustard and coriander seed, allspice, bay leaves, cloves, red and black pepper, cardamom, and mace

Serve this with

FAQ

Which is the best vinegar for pickling?

Distilled white vinegar for a clear appearance, neutral taste, and strong acidity. However, you can mix in other types of vinegar for flavor dimensions like apple cider, white wine, or red wine vinegar. Any colored vinegar will transfer the pigment to the onions.

Can I add water to dilute the pickled taste?

If you want a more mild vinegar taste, you can add ½ to 1 cup of water, adjusting to your desired taste. More sweetener and salt may be needed. Soak the onions for at least 1 hour since the strength of the acid has been diluted.

Can I reduce the sulfur taste before adding the pickling liquid?

Yes. You can soak the sliced onions in cold water for 15 minutes then drain well. Transfer to the vinegar solution for pickling.

Red onions soaking in a bowl of pickling liquid.

Why the onions turn pink from pickling

Red onions get their purple hue from various anthocyanins, a colorful flavonoid pigment found in their cell walls (mainly cyanidin-3-O-glucoside). When exposed to the hot acidic liquid, the low pH environment causes the anthocyanins to turn a radiant pink. This cannot be prevented. Pickle white onions instead if you prefer minimal color change.

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Pickled Red Onions

Learn how to make quick pickled red onions, ready in just 30-minutes! They add a tangy flavor to any dish like tacos, sandwiches, and salads.
Pin Print Review
4.41 from 5 votes
Prep Time35 mins
Cook Time5 mins
Total Time40 mins
Servings 8 servings
Course Condiment
Cuisine American

Ingredients

  • 1 red onion, medium, about 6 ounces, and 3” wide
  • ½ cup white vinegar
  • ½ cup apple cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup honey
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt

Instructions 

  • Prepare the Onions – Use a sharp knife to trim ½-inch from the stem end and ¼-inch off the root end. Cut in half lengthwise with the stem-side down, then peel. Slice each half into ⅛ to ¼-inch thick pieces. Alternatively, cut into rings.
  • Heat the Pickling Liquid – In a small saucepan, add distilled white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, honey, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve the honey and salt—Cook for about 2 minutes.
  • Pickle the Onions – In a medium bowl or glass jar, add the sliced onions. Pour the pickling liquid on top, pressing down to submerge.
  • Cool – Let the pickled onions sit at room temperature for 30 minutes to cool completely. Check every 10 minutes, submerging the onions with a spoon if needed.
  • To Serve – Use immediately or cover and store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Equipment

Notes

  • Recipe Yield: About 1 cup
  • Serving Size: About 2 tablespoons
  • Onion Substitutions: Use white, yellow, or sweet onions, shallots instead of red onions.
  • Substituting Honey: Use ¼ cup maple syrup (to make it paleo) or ⅓ cup granulated sugar.
  • Optional Flavorings: Dried bay leaf, a sprig of thyme, whole peppercorns (5), sliced garlic clove, red pepper flakes (⅛ to ¼ teaspoon), dried red chili, whole clove, cinnamon stick, pickling spice (½ to 1 teaspoon), allspice berries (3 to 5).
  • Storing: Store onions in the pickling liquid in an airtight container like a mason jar. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 weeks.

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Nutrition Facts
Pickled Red Onions
Amount Per Serving
Calories 20 Calories from Fat 9
% Daily Value*
Fat 1g2%
Saturated Fat 1g5%
Polyunsaturated Fat 1g
Monounsaturated Fat 1g
Sodium 30mg1%
Potassium 25mg1%
Carbohydrates 5g2%
Fiber 1g4%
Sugar 4g4%
Protein 1g2%
Vitamin A 1IU0%
Vitamin C 1mg1%
Calcium 4mg0%
Iron 1mg6%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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8 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Dave Riley says

    I have a question. How does pickling like this compare to the nutritional value of fermenting by relying on lacto-bacillus? Other than the probiotic aspect, what other nutritional differences could there be between pure vinegar pickles and a ferment with salt, vinegar and water?

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Great question, Dave! Since pickling the onions using this quick method happens in less than an hour, you won’t have the same benefits from a longer souring by Lacto-fermentation from a probiotic standpoint. Using just vinegar is lower in calorie and sodium options. Onions are naturally sweet, so if you don’t think you need the sweetener you can definitely omit it.

      • Dave Riley says

        I see that — but I was wondering about the qualities of the nutrition of the vegetables once they are ‘pickled’. For instance, does pickling impact on Vitamin content. Lactobacillus will add nutritional elements — but does vinegar pickling take some away?

        Of course, when used as a marinade, vinegar — acetic acid — will sort of ‘cook’ meat and fish.
        I suspect that vinegar is probably better for us than we presume. Indeed, many of the nutritional pluses of wine would have a similar source in the fermenting process…but without the alcohol hit.

        The Roman legions used to drink vinegar and water : ‘Posca’.
        Our problem , I reckon, is that commercialised pickles have erred muchly towards the added sugar — and sour has been given a bum rap.

        • Jessica Gavin says

          Since the pickling solution is heated, some of the heat-sensitive nutrients like Vitamin C and B may be reduced. However, any heat-stable nutrients like minerals, fiber, and protein will remain. It’s dependent on the produce you’re pickling. You can let the pickling solution cool down before combining it with the food, but I would let it sit for at least an hour before enjoying it.

  2. Zac says

    I love these, I have a bottle in my fridge almost all of the time. I actually prefer them after they have aged a little, the flavor changes over time but they stay crisp and delicious. Great on hamburgers, tacos or just a fork full!

  3. Brian Fox says

    I used these pickled red onions on the Greek Pasta Salad recipe. It was great. Takes the edge off of the onions and they retain so much flavor and sweetness.

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