Pickling Onions in 18th Century England

Although pickling has been around since the dawn of time, records of food preservation techniques exploded in the 1700s. Helped by the growing industrialization of the printing industry, house management handbooks and cookery books became high in demand. Food preservation techniques became ubiquitous; pickling went 18th century viral. The premise of soaking foodstuffs in a highly acidic (vinegary) environment to protect the food from spoilage remained unchanged, but the recipes and methods varied greatly. The types of pickled foods were diverse as well. Throughout the western world, pickles were made of locally prized ingredients. One very popular English vegetable to preserve was onions. The following recipe comes from Sarah Harrison’s 1739 cookbook The House-Keeper’s Pocket-Book, (however, the special onion preparation we use below originates from another source).


The plethora of spices in these pickling recipes is fascinating. Ginger (which is discussed on the previous page) and Jamaica pepper (known today as allspice) are influences from opposite sides of earth! In something as ordinary as a pickle, we can see how global colonialism affected all aspects of British culture.

Pickled Onion Recipe
Our recipe for is for approximately one pint of pickled onions. We’re using a stoneware lidded jar, but a glass canning jar will work as well. You can adjust the amounts below if you choose to make a larger batch.


  • 20 to 30 Pearl Onions
  • Water (enough for blanching the onions)
  • 1 cup Malt Vinegar or Distilled Vinegar
  • 1 ounce of Kosher Salt or Pickling salt (not iodized)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of peppercorns
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 1 tablespoon of fresh ginger (thinly sliced)
  • optional seasonings: 1/3 nutmeg (crushed) and three bay leaves


Put all of the onions and water in a pot and place over high heat. As soon as the water comes to a boil, remove from the heat, and strain the onions. Set the onions aside to let them cool completely.


Once the onions are cool, cut off the roots.


Separate the onions from their outer skins by gently squeezing them on the end opposite from the root cut. Place the blanched onions in your storage jar.


To Prepare Pickling Liquid

Mix the vinegar and all of the spices in a non-reactive saucepan and bring the liquid to a boil. Remove from the heat and let cool.

Final Preparation

Put all of the ingredients in the Jar and let the onions pickle for 10 days in your refrigerator.


Beautiful pickled onions!


This entry was posted in 18th Century Cooking, Historic Cooking, Recipe, Video and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Pickling Onions in 18th Century England

  1. Pingback: Merkwaardig (week 32) | www.weyerman.nl

  2. Richard says:

    Hey very good article, are there any ways to pickle eggs and sausages back then?

  3. amandachen says:

    Ah, nothing nicer than a pork pie and some pickled onions.

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