Pickling things that aren’t cucumbers has been a culinary trend ever since adding a fried egg to every burger, pizza, and ramen bowl became passé. But I’m old school and never believed in pickling unless it came from a jar labelled “Bread and Butter” with a big stork staring at me.
This week, I faced my vinegar fears and pickled red onions for a burger topping. Using Lindsay Hunt’s recipe from Healthyish (another Christmas cookbook gift!) for a quick pickled red onion, I tried out my first non-Vlasic pickle.
The pickling liquid couldn’t have been simpler—just red wine vinegar and kosher salt. In her book, Hunt assures that these two magical ingredients can transform your red onion, but I was skeptical. Most pickling recipes, even of the quick variety, call for peppercorns, garlic, and other aromatics. I was tempted to throw more in the bowl but wanted my first experience to be pure and true to recipe.
Hunt also notes that the longer you leave the onion in its pickling liquid, the better, but even just 15 minutes can do the trick when you’re in a time crunch. So I tried my onions once after 15 minutes and then again after an hour of marinating to better understand the transformation.
Wow! She wasn’t kidding with this uber-simple-yet-magical marinade!
I’ll admit, I started to dread trying this recipe after smelling all the vinegar (which I will forever associate with floor cleaner—thanks, Mom) I poured onto my perfectly good, raw red onion. I realized I was about to ingest that cleaning fluid in a few short minutes and started questioning my life choices.
But after only 15 minutes, not only was the vinegar acidic without making my lips pucker, but the harsh taste of raw red onion had already started to mellow out.
With another 45 minutes of pickling, the strong flavors of both primary ingredients were subdued and left a bright, zippy, that’ll-wake-ya-up snack in their place.
Topped on juicy, cheesy, and oh-so-greasy hamburgers, the pickled red onions turned out to be the ingredient I never knew I was missing.
Normally, I top my burgers with caramelized onions, and you can’t tell me that’s wrong because caramelized onions are never wrong.
However, it occurs to me that rich, fatty onions on top of rich, fatty cheese and rich, fatty ground beef may not be the most balanced meal in the world. These pickled red onions are the perfect solution—taking half the time it takes to caramelize onions, cutting out the butter and oil, and breaking up the burger fat with some much-needed acid.
This same recipe would work wonders on tacos, sandwiches, or smoky BBQ—anything meaty and rich. The flavor isn’t nearly as acerbic as I expected—there’s just enough zip to provide balance without overpowering other flavors.
Given how easy and quick these were to make, I definitely won’t shy away from them in the future. And they’ll be a regular burger topping in our apartment from now on (in other exciting news, I no longer have to avoid menu items that mention pickled red onions in their descriptions!). I would like to play around with other aromatics in the pickling liquid, though, to see how those transform the flavor.
What should I quick-pickle next? Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram @thepickyeaterchronicles. And if you haven’t made these at home before, you have to try them! They couldn’t be easier, and the payoff is well worth it!