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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Blackened fish tacos
- Slow cooker chicken tacos
- Beef battered fish tacos
- Pulled pork
- Greek Salad
- Stovetop burgers
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.
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.
Yes. You can soak the sliced onions in cold water for 15 minutes then drain well. Transfer to the vinegar solution for pickling.
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
- 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
- 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.
- Chef’s knife
- 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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