My first taste of a pickled pearl onion was from my dad’s martini. The onion was crunchy and tart and a far cry from our Sunday dinner’s frozen pearl onions in “real” cream sauce. For years I stocked up on those “cocktail onions” for drinks and snacks until I discovered how easy it was to make my own. The onions I use are sold in 10-ounce mesh bags in the produce department, in the colors of white, red and gold. They add flavor and color to soups, stews and braises. But I like them best pickled.

These little onions are milder and just a tad sweeter than their larger cousins. They are grown commercially in high-density rows, then harvested while still small. There is an actual variety of onion called the “white pearl,” which is beloved by the French and Swedish. It is a different variety from the commercial onions and is grown mostly in home gardens.

I keep a bag of the different colors on hand: The red are the sharpest tasting; the gold have a silky texture, and the white maintain their pure white color and snap once they’re peeled.

Like all onions, these pearls should feel firm and heavy, and look shiny. The skin around the neck should be very tightly closed. They shouldn’t have any soft or dark spots or sprouting.

One sure way to see if the onions are fresh is to sniff them before buying. If the odor is strong, they may be past their prime.

Store these onions in their mesh bags in a cool, dry and well-ventilated place until ready to use. Light can cause them to turn bitter. Because they readily absorb moisture, keep them away from potatoes, which exude a natural gas that speeds the onions’ spoilage.

Pearl onions are in season year-round and are good to pickle at any time.

To peel pearl onions

Pearl onions are thin-skinned, so they can be tricky to peel. The quickest method is to blanch them first in a pot of boiling water for about 30 seconds, then drain and cool them. The peels will slip off right away and the onions will be ready to use.


Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at