Pickling is likely one of the easiest ways to preserve fresh produce. This process has been used as a means of food preservation for over 4,000 years going back to the time of the ancient Mesopotamians. Food was pickled and used for long journeys especially by sea.
The term pickle is derived from the Dutch word “pekel” or the northern German word “pokel” meaning salt or brine, which are two components important to the process. These days in the U.S. and Canada the word “pickle” almost exclusively refers to pickled cucumbers. However, the end product of any food that is preserved by a pickling process is referred to as a “pickle”.
Pickling preserves food by anaerobic (without oxygen) fermentation. Consequently, this is typically done in either a salt brine or in vinegar. The brine creates an acidic environment which inhibits the growth of bacteria. Consequently the food does not need to be completely sterile.
In addition to vinegar there are often a variety of herbs and spices that are used in the process. Many recipes simply use a combination of dill, garlic, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon, and salt.
There truly is an infinite variety of recipes for pickling. Because of this you can preserve almost anything. It is possible to pickle food for refrigeration only, which means it has to be consumed within a reasonable amount of time. However, a canning process is required in order to store pickled foods for a longer period of time especially at room temperature. Just about any fresh fruit and vegetable, even eggs, fish, and meat are suitable for pickling. However, in this guide I am only going to focus on vegetables.
Pickling is one of the easiest means of preserving food. The basic process is essentially the same no matter what you are trying to preserve.
Unless you are familiar with processing your own food, pickling may seem like a complicated process. However, with a few simple tools and supplies before long you will be a pickling pro. The necessary tools and equipment are simple.
1) Jars: Air tight glass jars are best. Canning jars are perfect for pickling and they are inexpensive.
2) Vinegar: There are multiple types of vinegar used for pickling. Truly it is a matter of personal taste. Vinegars that are acceptable for pickling include apple cider vinegar, rice wine vinegar, distilled white vinegar, and white wine vinegar.
3) Salt: There are literally 12 different types of salt. For pickling, the best thing to do is avoid salt with any sort of additives. Sea salt is packed with valuable vitamins and minerals. Kosher salt and Himalayan salt are good choices. Pickling salt is made specifically for canning or pickling.
4) Sugar: A small amount of sugar is needed to balance the flavors. Although white sugar is most commonly used, any type of sugar is acceptable. Try different types in order to change up the flavors.
5) Water: Purified water is always best. However, tap water is perfectly fine.
6) Herbs and spices: The most common ingredients used are dill, garlic, onion, cloves, peppercorns, cinnamon and salt. However, there is an infinite variety of other herbs and spices that work well such as coriander seeds, mustard seeds, bay leaves, red pepper, allspice, and chilis.
7) Produce: The options here are endless. Most people start with cucumbers because it is very easy and a great way to gain experience. However, you can pickle almost anything, including watermelon rinds.
Always start with fresh fruits and vegetables. Wash and clean them thoroughly.
Some of the tougher vegetables such as beets, carrots, green beans, okra, and peppers require blanching. If the veggies need to be blanched just follow the instructions in the recipe. Blanching helps to reduce or stop the activity of the natural enzymes in foods that result in faster degradation. Thus giving vegetables a longer shelf life. Blanching also helps to retain the natural flavors.
Two Ways to Blanch Vegetables
Use a large pot with a tight fitting lid. Fill with 1 to 2 inches of water. Use a colander, wire basket, or sieve to hold the vegetables. The produce should not contact the boiling water. Bring the water to a boil and then place the vegetables in the pot.
Once finished, place the vegetables in cold water long enough to stop the cooking process. Do not cool them to room temperature unless you are doing a quick pickle.
Use a large pot with a tight fitting lid. Fill about 2/3 full of water and bring to a boil. Fully immerse the vegetables in the water for the recommended time. Remove and place in cold water.
3) Packing the jars
Lots of pickling recipes call for pint sized jars. However, quart jars are even better. Regardless of the size of the jar, the veggies need to be cut down to a size that will fit into whatever pickling jar you use. They can be cut into discs, spears, or smaller ones can be left whole. Packed the jars full but leave some space for the brine to circulate. Also leave some head room at the top of the jar to make sure the veggies are completely submerged in the brine.
4) Add the desired flavorings
The benefit to pickling is that there is an infinite variety of spices that can be used to vary the flavor. Here are a couple of tasty examples.
Dry Flavorings (amount per pint jar):
1 Bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon Celery seed
1-3 small whole dried Chile peppers
1/2 teaspoon Mustard seed
1/2 teaspoon Pickling spice
1/2 teaspoon Turmeric
1/2 teaspoon Cumin seed
1/2 teaspoon Dill seed
Fresh Flavorings (amount per pint jar):
1 fresh Habanero or Jalapeño pepper
2-4 sprigs sliced or whole dill
1/2-1 large clove of garlic, sliced
2 , 3-inch strips fresh, peeled Horseradish or 1/2 teaspoon prepared Horseradish
1 sprig fresh Oregano
5) Make your brine
The brine is usually a mixture of vinegar and salt. Simply follow the recipe. Here are a couple of examples of different brines.
3 cups distilled white vinegar or cider vinegar
3 cups of water
2 1/2 tablespoons of sea salt
2 tablespoons sugar
Bring to a boil until the salt is dissolved and then boil 2 more minutes. Makes 6 cups of brine
Sweet Pickle Brine
3 cups of distilled white vinegar or cider vinegar
3 cups of water
1 1/2 cups of sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of sea salt
Bring liquid to a boil and then allow to boil for two minutes. Makes 6 cups.
6) Pour the brine into the jars packed with vegetables or whatever product you are pickling. Be sure to completely submerge the produce with the brine. Never pour boiling brine into cool jars. Cool the brine to slightly above room temperature.
7) Cool and refrigerate. If this is a quick pickle recipe cool the product to room temperature and refrigerate.
8) Canning. If the recipes calls for canning, then process according to the recipe. Store at room temperature after processing.
When you mention “pickle” most people immediately think of the classic cucumber pickle. However, any pickled vegetable is correctly referred to as a “pickle”. “Quick pickles” refers to produce that is pickled without the canning process. These are also known as refrigerator pickles. The end product has to be stored in the refrigerator and will last 2 to 3 months.
The best part of quick pickles is that it is easy to do in small batches, typically one or two pints or quarts at a time.
Instructions for Processing
Using too much sugar: Pickling brine should have a little bit of a sharp taste. Some recipes call for as much as 1/4 cup of sugar per pint jar. There are many health benefits to processing your own food and reducing the sugar content is one of them. Unless you prefer pickled vegetables in syrup, then back off on the sugar.
Not using enough water. If vinegar was the only liquid content to your brine, the taste would be very sharp. It is important to balance that by using water and a small amount of sugar.
Using table salt. Table salt has added iodine and anti-caking additives. These can cause cloudiness and discoloration. Pickling salt does not have these additives. Additionally its fine texture means it dissolves easier. Sea salt and Kosher salt also work well.
Not measuring ingredients carefully. If you want to consistently make great pickles, then follow the recipe carefully. Do not be cavalier with measuring ingredients. There is nothing worse than pouring in the brine and figuring out you do not have enough.
Pickling everything together. Different vegetables pickle at different rates. Consequently if you mix things together you will not have consistent results. Some veggies, such as red onions, will also bleed color onto the other produce. That said, one of my favorite recipes is pickling a mixture of jalapeños, white onions, and carrots together. I like the flavor. But, each of these ingredients ends up with a completely different texture.
Using the wrong type of cucumber. There are several varieties of cucumbers. The common variety seen in the supermarket are typically for snacking and for salads. Using these to make pickles will result in a very soft pickle. It is far better to use the smaller cucumbers that are very firm.
Not enough time in the brine. Allowing your pickled products to sit for the recommended time actually improves the flavor. Eating them too soon often means a bitter flavor. Letting them sit too long usually means they go limp. Taste as you go and you will end up with a perfect pickle.
Soft pickles. There are a number of reasons for this including the following: Brine is too weak, over cooking during canning, pickles stored at too high of a temperature, over ripe produce used, using the wrong type of cucumber. Additionally, the blossom on the end of the cucumber contains an enzyme that causes softening. Remove the blossom and about 1/16 of an inch off of the end.
Cloudiness and color. The most common cause of this is using the wrong type of salt. Table salt contains additives that can cause cloudiness. Also, if you made the brine in a metal pot, the acidity of the brine can react with the metal causing cloudiness. However, the pickles are still safe to eat. Cloudiness can also be a sign of spoilage. If in doubt, throw it out.
Dark or discolored pickles. Using brass, copper, or zinc utensils can cause this. In which case, you cannot eat the pickles. Additionally, the minerals in hard water can cause discoloration. Another cause is using ground spices for processing.
Pickles are hollow. This could be the result from improper curing or not using fresh fruit. Using cucumbers that are too large will also result in a hollow pickle.
Shriveled pickles. Not using fresh fruit. Using a brine that is too strong, too sweet, or using very strong vinegar. Over cooking or over processing.
White coating on the pickles. This is usually the result of using salt with anti-caking ingredients. It is better to use pickling salt, kosher salt, or sea salt.
Cloves of garlic that turn green, bluish green, or purple after pickling. This can be the result of iron, tin, or aluminum in your cooking pot, or water supply. Immature garlic bulbs sometimes have more of a purplish color. This can be corrected by using mature garlic bulbs, distilled water, and using high quality cookware such as stainless steel, glass, or ceramic lined without any cracks.
Use of plastics for pickling. If you use plastic, it has to be food grade. Keep in mind that plastic is damaged very easily. The scraps, cuts, and dings could potentially harbor harmful bacteria. It is far better to use a stone crock or glass.
Use of firming agents to increase crispness of pickles. Firming agents such as alum are no longer recommended. It does not increase the firmness of quick process pickles. Adding a grape leaf to the pickling jar will accomplish the same thing. However, by using fresh produce and following proper technique firming agents are not necessary.
Using homemade vinegars for pickling. Pickling is a very safe process if done properly. Proper technique results in producing an acidic environment that inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. The problem with homemade vinegars is that the acidity is unknown. Consequently, using them for pickling may result in an unsafe product. It is better to use theses vinegars for salads. For pickling it is far safer to use commercially prepared vinegars of known acidity.
1) Dilly Beans
These are a great snack to keep around and they are simple to make.
2 pint jars
2) Quick Pickle Red Onions
These are a nice, crunchy treat and are also great on burgers or in salads.
3) Quick pickled Cucumbers (Refrigerator pickles)
One pint jar
This recipe is incredibly simple and makes great pickles. This makes one pint of pickles so adjust the quantities accordingly.
Pack a clean pint jar with sliced cucumber, onion, and dill. Leave about 1/2 inch head space.
In a small sauce pan, add water vinegar, and all other ingredients. Heat slowly to a simmer.
Cool until warm. Pour in jars enough to cover all of the contents. Seal jars and refrigerate for 24 hours before consuming. Can be stored for up to 2 months.
4) Pickled carrots, either quick pickle or canned
5) Pickled Cauliflower, carrots, and red bell pepper
This recipe is tasty along side grilled meats. But you can also serve them with flat bread, olives, and humus.
3 pint jars
As you can see, pickling is one of the easiest forms of food preservation. If this has peaked your interest, then check out these additional references.
The USDA has an excellent guide on Preparing and Canning Fermented Foods and Pickled Vegetables.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac also has a Beginner’s Guide to Pickling
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