Sweet and Sour Onions

Side DishGluten-FreeVegetarianVegetables

Sweet and sour braised pearl or boiling onions flavored with vinegar and honey.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

A perfect holiday side dish from Hank Shaw. Enjoy! ~Elise

This is a lovely way to eat smaller onions. I learned this recipe from Italian cookbooks, where they call it onions agrodolce, but the concept of sweet-and-sour onions is pretty widespread. Basically you cook the onions part way either by roasting or boiling – we boil them here – and then finish them off in a pan with oil (or butter) something sweet (in this case honey) and something sharp, usually vinegar.

You can totally play with flavors here. Switch up oils and fats – walnut oil, duck fat, sesame oil, etc – and sweeteners (honey, brown sugar, agave nectar, and so on) and you will get all sorts of different results. All are good.

Sweet and Sour Onions Recipe

  • Prep time: 20 minutes
  • Cook time: 15 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4.

These onions are just as tasty at room temperature as they are hot.


  • 1 to 1 1/2 pounds boiling or pearl onions
  • Salt
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil or butter
  • 3 Tbsp cider, malt or white wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp honey


1 The hardest part about this recipe is peeling the onions. If you are using pearl or small cipollini onions, blanch them in boiling water for a minute or so and then plunge them into ice water to stop the cooking. Slice off the root and stem ends, and the papery skin should slip right off. If you are using the larger boiling onions, as we did here, just slice the stem end off the onion and peel as you would a normal onion.

2 Bring a pot of salty water to a boil, and boil your onions for 4-10 minutes, or until they are tender. Smaller onions will need less time. You want them al dente, not soft, because they will cook a bit more in the frying pan. Drain the onions well and set aside.

3 Get a frying pan hot over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Let the olive oil get hot for a minute or two and add the onions. They will spit a little because they are full of moisture. Let them sizzle until you get some browning on a couple sides of the onion, about 4-5 minutes.

4 Meanwhile, mix the honey and vinegar vigorously until the honey dissolves. Add it to the frying pan. It will spit and sizzle violently. Turn the onions to coat with the mixture and turn the heat down to medium. Sprinkle salt over everything.

5 Let the vinegar-honey mixture boil down to a thick syrup. Turn the onions often to coat evenly. Serve hot or at room temperature, with a little sprinkling of a fancy salt like fleur de sel, if you have some.

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Roasted Vidalia Onions with Balsamic Sweet-and Sour Sauce - from Stephen Cooks
Sweet and Sour Cipollini - from Smitten Kitchen
Ramps or Scallions Agrodolce - from Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

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Hank Shaw

A former restaurant cook and journalist, Hank Shaw is the author of three wild game cookbooks as well as the James Beard Award-winning wild foods website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. His latest cookbook is Buck, Buck, Moose, a guide to working with venison. He hunts, fishes, forages and cooks near Sacramento, CA.

More from Hank

7 Comments / Reviews

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Did you make it? Rate it!

  1. Laura

    You can get frozen pearl onions at Kroger under the Kroger brand. They are peeled and ready to use, but they are not cooked. I think Kroger is more available in some areas than Trader Joe’s.

  2. Robin

    Just made this tonight, wow, delicious! We will definitely make this again!

  3. Denisse

    I’m thinking of serving these on xmas eve. Can these be prepared ahead of time (a couple of days before?) and how should they be reheated?

    Yes, you can make them ahead of time. I actually like sweet and sour onions at room temperature, so you could go that route. Or, gently reheat them in a covered pot set over low heat with a little water added. ~Hank

  4. Cinzia from Stile Mediterraneo Cooking Italy

    This is absolutely one of my favorite recipes! In Puglia (Southern Italy) we make agrodolce onions with Primitivo wine vinegar (they become a bit more red) and then we accompany them with stir fried eggplants cooked with some cherry tomatoes and capers. They are so delicate and delicious. Really a must!

  5. Dani

    You can buy frozen pearl onions at Trader Joes if you have one nearby. They’re pretty fabulous.

  6. Wendy M

    I was going to do a roasted mushroom and onion dish but this looks wonderful. Question- can I used frozen pearl onions that have been thawed (already purchased).
    thank you and Happy Thanksgiving-

    I think so. See the answer to the comment above. ~Hank

  7. Connie

    Can you use the frozen pearl onion for the Sweet & Sour Onions recipe? If so, should they be cooked any first before the saute step?

    Uh, frozen onions? I’ve never even seen them. I suppose they have been blanched and peeled, though, and if they are pearl onions they will probably not need to be cooked before they hit the saute pan. But I am just guessing here, having never worked with frozen onions before. ~Hank

Sweet and Sour Onions