Studebaker Pickles: Pearl Onion Garnish

Studebaker Pickles: Pearl Onion Garnish

“Pickled pearl onions are gross,” said Kate Hug, sipping on a Gibson. “You ever had them? Yech.”

These are the words spoken by the head pickler of Studebaker Pickles, a young Oakland business.

Although it should be said that she meant the garden-variety pickled pearl onion — because most pickles are an afterthought.  Pickling is what you do right before a vegetable goes bad. It’s what you do when you’ve grown too much of one crop. A pickle is the limp spear next to your industrial-grade hamburger.  Generally, its real estate on the plate is small.

But the recipes at Studebaker are a far cry from those that come on a flat of Ball canning jars. Each batch was inspired by someone in Hug’s life, oftentimes people at Pizzaiolo, where Hug works during the day as a barista. Her cardamom green beans were for the pastry chef at Pizzaiolo, Kiri Mah, who wanted them laden with spices, but not tongue-searing hot. “She can’t take spice,” Hug explained.

The pearl onion recipe was created for “a computer programmer who is fond of a martini when he’s finished with work,” Hug said. “He had complained for some years about the inadequacy of pearl onions.”

Hug, with her quick tongue and keen eyes, has long been in school, first as a PhD candidate in religious studies, and now in library science. It’s no surprise that with her background in academic research, she made 30 test batches in her search for the perfect recipe.

Last year, she pickled solo. Pickling, she’s found, balances out her lifestyle. After the mental strain of books and papers, the quiet task of stripping the outermost layer of a pure white onion is a relief. “Last year I peeled 30 pounds of onions by myself. It was cathartic.”

But this year, pickling is a group project. On a Friday night, Hug and her assistants, 15-year-olds Eli Hallowell and Milo Henderson, hunched over their paring knives — the curved kind, with a sharp tip for picking at sticky membranes — trying to avoid injury.

Pearl onions sit, gleaming like hard-boiled eggs, in a nest of their own papery skins. The air is filled with noxious fumes. Feathers of onion skin stick to their fingers. The boys sustain cuts. But the peeling continues, and each peeled onion gets dropped into the bucket with a satisfying thunk, for a brining in salt and water, so that the onion retains its crunchiness when finally jarred.

A couple of days later, Hug was up before the sun to start working in the kitchen of Pizzaiolo. The wood-fired oven still emanated heat through its closed metal door. On the wall hung art by Henderson’s mother, Kathleen. The Henderson family is no stranger to the place. Nor is Hallowell’s — his father owns it. It’s a tight community.

Black lids and glass jars bubbled on the stove; dried peppers steeped in vinegar.  “They’re Peruvian,” she said, about the peppers. “I grew them in my garden. You can’t get them here.”

Hug opened a huge tub of onions. The smell of onions shot up like a rocket. She inspected them. Any onion whose bulb has been overly trimmed will open, like a telescope, once it’s jarred. She picked out the faulty-looking ones carefully.

Spices were sprinkled into the jars: peppercorns, bay, and juniper. The onions cracked with a soft sound, like a camera click, as they are compressed. She removed the cracked layers, and found tiny onions to fill the gaps. The bulbs poked out of the jar mouths, and steaming vinegar filled the spaces. The boys wrestle with the vegetable peeler. “It’s a random set of sub skills — ‘I can peel a lemon faster than you can!’” Hug told them.

Everything was jammed down with a lid, dipped into a bath of boiling water for a few minutes, and then cooled.

The onions will continue to mellow over a couple of months, destined for places like Bi-Rite Market and the Pop-up General Store.  They are also meant for the well-regarded Oakland restaurant, Plum, which will soon be opening a bar, and using the onions in their signature Gibsons.

“It’s is like a gin martini,” Hug said, “but with almost no vermouth. It’s basically straight gin.”

In other words, the drink could get you into trouble.

Once the cocktail is drained, the onion at the bottom of the glass crunches like an apple, with only a wisp of tartness as the savory juices are released. A mild onion flavor lingers at the end. They are remarkably, wonderfully, not gross.

(from Jonas Halpren from

2 oz. Gin or Vodka
2 drops Dry Vermouth
Garnish with Pearl Onion

Combine all ingredients in cocktail shaker with ice.
Strain into a chilled cocktail glass

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