Pickled Red Onions

5 from 9 votes
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This pickled red onion recipe is ready in just 30 minutes! They add a bold, sweet, and tangy flavor to any dish, like tacos, burritos, sandwiches, and salads.

Quick pickled red onions in a glass jar.

Recipe Science

  • Soaking onions in acidic types of vinegar alters the structure, mellowing their sharpness and infusing tangy flavors.
  • The vinegar reacts with red onions’ anthocyanins, turning them from red to bright pink, enhancing their visual appeal.
  • Salt in the brine draws out moisture from the onions, intensifying flavors and preserving crispness.

Why It Works

Homemade pickled onions are the easiest condiment you’ll ever make. They require just five simple pantry ingredients and take a few minutes to prepare. 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 jars of pickled onions a week or two in advance to grab and top.

Ingredients You’ll Need

Ingredients needed for this pickled onions recipe.
  • Onions: 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 choice to garnish any dish. I like to use medium-sized onions, 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.
  • Vinegar: For proper pickling, target a 5% vinegar concentration. I use equal amounts of two kinds of vinegar: white and apple cider vinegar. White distilled is clear in color, with a clean, strong, and harsh pungency. Apple cider vinegar is more mellow in tartness, with a fruity aroma. Use equal amounts to balance the taste and add dimension.
  • Sweetener: You need a sweetener to balance the tartness of the vinegar and sulfur notes of the quick pickled onion recipe. I like honey because it gives a more complex taste and golden hue.
  • Salt: I use kosher salt to season the pickled onions, but it also acts as a preservative.

See the recipe card below for all ingredients and measurements (US and metric).

Ingredient Substitutions

Once you learn how to make pickled red onions, try these fun and tasty options:

  • Onion Swaps: Feel free to use other types of onions, like yellow, white, or shallots. Each gives a different flavor dimension. Mix them up for an exciting combination.
  • Vinegar Options: Different types of cooking vinegar can be used. The choice depends on flavor profile, color, and vinegar strength. Rice vinegar, red and white wine vinegar, and champagne vinegar are great choices. If you only have one, sticking to a single type is okay. Avoid balsamic vinegar, as it will give an unappealing dark tint.
  • Sweetener Substitutions: Pure maple syrup is also a good choice for a caramel finish. Granulated sugar is often used for a clean sweetness. It doesn’t taste as sweet as honey, so I recommend increasing it 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.
  • Flavor the Onions: Add sliced garlic cloves for extra allium flavor. Whole peppercorns for a spicy taste. A sprig of thyme or bay leaf for herbaceous notes. Cloves, allspice berries, star anise, or a cinnamon stick for a warm spice taste
  • Make it Spicy: For Mexican pickled onions, add red pepper flakes, whole dried chilies, or fresh chili peppers like habanero or jalapenos for a lingering heat.
  • Use a Pickling Spice Blend: Mix mustard and coriander seeds, allspice, bay leaves, cloves, red and black pepper, cardamom, and mace.

How to Make Pickled Onions

Person slicing a red onion on a cutting board.

Step 1: Cut the Onion into Rings

I find the best way to cut onions for pickling is to slice them into rings. The thinner the onions, the quicker they will pickle. Use a sharp knife and target an ⅛-inch thickness to ensure they do not overpower the dish. A ¼-inch thick piece gives prominent bites if desired. Alternatively, a kitchen grater like a mandoline works well for this particular task.

Experimentation Encouraged: 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.

Stirring a pot of pickling liquid with a wooden spoon.

Step 2: Make the Pickling Liquid

The essential ingredients to pickle onions are acidic vinegar, sweetener, and salt. The solution briefly boils to let the sugar and salt dissolve quickly.

Ingredient Chemistry: Water is often added to dilute the pungent taste of vinegar, especially if stored for extended periods. However, I omit the hot water for this quick pickled red onion recipe because I want to concentrate the acid.

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

Step 3: Pickle the Onions

Once the hot pickling liquid has finished heating, pour it over the onions. Soak in a heatproof bowl at room temperature if you plan to serve immediately.

If you’re making it in advance to enjoy throughout the week, add the sliced onions directly to a glass mason jar, at least 16 ounces in size, or split between two 8-ounce jars.

Pro Tip: Let the liquid cool slightly before pickling if you prefer a more crisp texture.

Sliced red onions soaking in a bowl of pickling liquid.

Step 4: Cool the Onions

The marinating process takes about 30 minutes. Over time, the acetic acid will dilute the strong sulfurous compounds in the onion and soften the texture. The flavor will be bright, with a tangy taste and lingering sweetness.

How to pickle red onions, a step by step guide.

Step 5: Serve the Pickled Onions

Serve the pickled onions as a condiment right away. They boost the flavor of tacos, salads, stovetop burgers, and avocado toast. Alternatively, store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which is the best vinegar for pickling?

Distilled white vinegar for a clear appearance, neutral taste, and intense 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 mild vinegar taste, 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.

Why do the onions turn pink from pickling?

Red onions get their purple hue from various anthocyanins, a colorful flavonoid pigment 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.
5 from 9 votes
Prep Time35 minutes
Cook Time5 minutes
Total Time40 minutes
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 Chef's knife to trim ½-inch from the stem end and ¼-inch off the root end. Cut a flat spot on the side to stabilize the onion. Slice into ⅛ to ¼-inch thick 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 mason jars in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Recipe Video

YouTube video

Notes

  • Recipe Yield: About 1 cup
  • Serving Size: About 2 tablespoons
  • For Larger Onions: Cut the onion in half lengthwise, as large rings may not fit within a jar or storage container.
  • Onion Substitutions: Use white, yellow, or sweet onions or 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 up to 2 weeks.

Nutrition Facts

Serves: 8 servings
Calories 20kcal (1%)Carbohydrates 5g (2%)Protein 1g (2%)Fat 1g (2%)Saturated Fat 1g (5%)Polyunsaturated Fat 1gMonounsaturated Fat 1gSodium 30mg (1%)Potassium 25mg (1%)Fiber 1g (4%)Sugar 4g (4%)Vitamin A 1IUVitamin C 1mg (1%)Calcium 4mgIron 1mg (6%)

Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000-calorie diet. All nutritional information is based on estimated third-party calculations. Each recipe and nutritional value will vary depending on the brands you use, measuring methods, and portion sizes per household.

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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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15 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Elisa C. says

    I’ve been looking for a way to pickle onions in the easiest way possible and finally I’ve got it thanks to you! I really like to add these onions to burgers and salads! I’ve also noticed the flavor has evolved from more pungent to ‘balanced’ after 4 – 5 days from the preparation date, which is really interesting from my point of view! Cannot wait to experiment with different types of onions.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thrilled to hear that you enjoyed my pickled onion recipe! The flavor does soften over time, the onions are so versatile.

  2. Robert H. says

    Hi Jessica,
    I’ve been making your exact recipe for over a year, experimenting with different vinegar types. It’s an added “go-to” side dish with any steak, london broil or prime rib recipe. The taste does tend to be milder, as the onions soften from prolonged storage. But, they’re still quite flavorful.

    While brining, I press and tuck a piece of plastic wrap over the onion tops. It much helps to keep the onions submerged in the liquid. Being aware that a metal container may react with any acidic ingredients, I use glass, plastic or ceramic dishes for brining and storage.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Thank you for making the pickled onion recipe for over a year! You are so smart to submerge them properly, and not to use metal for long term storage.

  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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.