Onions have been an unexpected challenge to grow and to keep. They appear easy: just pop them in the ground, watch them grow, pull them out, let them dry a bit, and shove them in a box. But appearances can be deceiving. Onion growth is linked not just to temperature but also to daylength—two factors that run to extremes in northwest Montana. I spent years buying ubiquitous onion sets and harvesting tiny bulbs that bolted easily before realizing that they would never reach full size before days grew too short, temperatures became too cool, and the growing season ended. The solution? Buy transplants.
Suddenly, the onion crop was huge. But this presented another problem: how to store them. Onions are traditional dry-storage vegetables and can handle a range of temps, from just above freezing to 50°F. The main issue is humidity: unless they’re in a dry space with only 60%–70% humidity, they’ll quickly soften and rot. My little cabin with its unheated mudroom has few such spaces. I grill and freeze many of my onions, but on big years I’m still left with many pounds to try to keep through winter. Savory spreads, such as marmalade and relish, take a little more effort but store well.
Apple–Red Onion Marmalade
6 pounds underripe or tart apples
3 1-inch cinnamon sticks
4-1/2 cups water
3-3/4 cups apple cider vinegar (5% acidity)
4-1/2 cups granulated sugar
Pull the papery skins from the onions, setting them aside; remove and compost the root ends. Using a mandoline or sharp knife, thinly slice the onions, setting aside enough of the thinnest to equal 1 cup. Zest the lemon, adding the zest to the pile of sliced onions. Chop the remaining onions, onion peels, lemon, and apples, retaining the apple peels, cores, and seeds, and add them into a wide, 6-quart or larger pot. Drop in the cinnamon sticks, pour in the water and vinegar, and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Lower the heat to medium high, and cover loosely. Cook for about 30 minutes, until the apples break down and their peels separate from the pulp. Stir as needed to prevent burning.
Strain the juice as you would for Sweet Pepper Jelly: Set a fine-mesh or cheesecloth-lined colander over a large bowl, pour in the hot mixture, and let the juice drain for at least 30 minutes; stir occasionally, but don’t press down on the pulp. Set the colander on a plate and measure out the juice; you should have about 6 cups. If you come up short, return the colander to the bowl, stir in some hot water, and let the solids drain until you have the desired amount of liquid.
Clean the pot and add the juice and sugar; stir in the onion slices and lemon zest. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook, stirring often, for about 15 minutes, or until the marmalade sets when you test it.
Tips & Tricks
- Although you could use other onions, red ones produce the most colorful marmalade. The onion skins give even more color, so use as many as you can—including those from red onions you might be peeling for another recipe (see below).
- A zester that cuts citrus peel into long, thin strips matches the shape of thinly sliced onions. You can use a grater-style zester instead, but expect to see and taste flecks of peel.
- If you’re growing apples, pick the ones you need for this and other jamming recipes, like Tomato–Apple–Basil Jam, before the first frost sweetens them; they’ll release more pectin into the mix. If you’re buying apples, choose tart ones, like Granny Smiths.
- Unlike dense marmalades such as Fall Marmalade and Rhubarb–Orange–Ginger Marmalade, this recipe produces a jelly-clear marmalade with suspended solids. To ensure it sets, bring the mixture to 8°F above the boiling point of water at your altitude.
Twice as Tasty
Relish seems synonymous with hotdogs, hamburgers, and other meats, so it may surprise you to find it in my pantry. But this versatile spread is a cousin to chutney and often includes enough sugar to make it a distant relative of savory jams. If you’re trying to foster a love of pickles in family members, relishes can be a good place to start. Those who argue they don’t like relish have probably only ever eaten sugary cucumber relish and have no idea of the other flavors the condiment can hold.
Relish truly is a condiment, unlike pickles that can be laid on sandwiches or popped unadorned into your mouth. But that just expands its uses. Of course, it’s delicious spread on sandwiches or Black Bean Veggie Burgers and served on a party platter with freshly made cheeses and pita. But it’s also tasty alongside Sourdough Empanadas, mixed with Fresh Yogurt as a dip, and pureed and thinned with a little water to use as a glaze or dipping sauce for skewers of Pan-Fried Tofu or as a salad dressing for Basic Potato Salad.
Grilled Red Onion Relish
2 red bell peppers
5 cups apple cider vinegar (5% acidity)
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons molasses
2 tablespoons pickling or kosher salt
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons smoked paprika
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seed
4 teaspoons coriander seed, crushed
2–3 dried chilies, minced
4 whole peppercorns, crushed
Peel the onions, reserving the skins for Apple–Red Onion Marmalade. Cut off the onion root ends and deseed the peppers, and then grill the onions and peppers. Let the vegetables cool enough to handle, and then dice; set aside. Combine all remaining ingredients in a large pot, and bring to a boil. Add the onion and pepper, return to a boil, and simmer for 30–40 minutes, until the onions are translucent but still have a firm texture. Remove from the heat.
Ladle into hot half-pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace and trying to distribute the solids and any liquid evenly among the jars. Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, plus your altitude adjustment. Makes about 7 half-pint jars.
Tips & Tricks
- You can simply dice raw onion and pepper for this recipe, but grilling before preserving adds such a flavor boost it’s worth the time.
- You can also skip the boiling water bath for this or any other savory spread designed for canning and simply store the jars in the fridge. If you’re giving them as refrigerated gifts, be sure write a note or add a gift tag that lets your lucky recipients know the jar is not shelf stable.
- Lightly crushing the whole spices makes them easier to eat while maximizing flavor, and whole mustard seeds will soften yet pop in your mouth after the jars sit a couple of weeks. For a smoother relish with a lighter flavor, gather all of the whole spices into a spice bag and remove the bag from the relish just before processing.
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Tried & True
These tools and supplies may help you make the recipes in this post:
- This zester makes thin strips that hold their shape well through the canning process. They also look pretty in cocktails.
- A digital thermometer that registers a high maximum temperature easily checks that your hot, gooey marmalade will set when cool. A dial thermometer can also work; just be sure it tops out somewhere above 212°F.
- Your marmalade will splatter as it cooks down. Stirring often is the most helpful, but if you have to step away for a moment or find the stirring can’t keep pace with the popping bubbles, slap on a splatter shield like this one.
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