What are pearl onions?
Pearl onions are a miniature variety of onion with a mild, sweet flavour and a pleasant crunch. At between ¼ and ½ an inch in diameter, these bite-sized beauties are usually eaten whole, and taste great roasted, pickled, or added to stews and roast meats. They get their name from their small size and typically pearly white skin, although there are also rarer red or gold skinned varieties available.
Find out more about the different varieties of onion with our guide to 21 types of onion and how to use them.
Like most onions, pearl onions have a semi-translucent, papery skin, but because of their small size they can be tricky to peel. You can buy them pre-peeled, either frozen or canned, but if you want to use them fresh, there are a few simple tricks that will have those pesky skins removed in no time.
How to prepare pearl onions for peeling
There is very little preparation needed for peeling pearl onions. All you need to do is remove the ends of each onion, using a sharp knife. You can also cut a cross at one end if you have slightly larger pearl onions, but this is not necessary for the really tiny ones.
The best way to peel pearl onions is to blanch them in boiling water. It’s quick and easy, and the onions emerge intact and perfectly smooth, ready to use in whatever dish you had in mind.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil, then add the onions and boil for 2 minutes. You should see the skins start to peel away as they boil.
Remove the onions and place in an ice bath to stop them from cooking.
Remove the onions from the ice bath and place them on some paper towels to drain.
You should now be able to rub the skin away easily with your fingers. For the smallest onions, you can squeeze them at one end and they will pop right out of their skins.
If you need pearl onions in a hurry, the quickest way to peel them is simply to place them in the microwave for 20 to 30 seconds. As with blanching, this should loosen their skins so they can easily be removed. It will also partly cook the onions, however, and you may find that they have deflated a little in the microwave, so avoid this method if appearance is important.
How to cook pearl onions
There are many different ways to prepare pearl onions, and their mild, sweet flavour means that they go with almost anything. They taste great added to soups and stews, as an accompaniment to meat dishes, or served au gratin with a rich, creamy sauce.
Pearl onions can be sautéed, braised, caramelised, or glazed with butter and sugar and served with parsley. Their small size also makes them perfect for pickling, and they can be used to add tanginess and crunch to salads and Ploughman’s lunches.
For more tips on how to cook onions in general, take a look at these 9 techniques for cooking an onion perfectly.