The Beginner's Guide to Pickling
Although pickles have recently experienced a renewed surge in popularity—along with just about every fermented food, from kimchi to kombucha—the history of pickling goes back over 4,000 years to the time of the ancient Mesopotamians. Since then, pickles have gone through a cultural evolution from near mythic cure-all food to humble garnish.
Roman emperors, including Caesar, fed pickles to troops in order to improve their physical and spiritual strength, and Cleopatra apparently attributed her own beauty to a steady diet of the fermented food. However, nowadays pickled vegetables are best known for their fresh, acidic bite, which adds a satisfying contrast to rich dishes like cheeseburgers to tacos. Pickling is also an amazing way to cut down on potential food waste, while aiding in digestive health and creating flavorful snacks and garnishes.
While beginning the pickling process at home can seem like an intimidating task to pickle novices like myself, with a few simple ingredients and tools we can all be quick-pickling like pros in no time.
While longer-term, shelf stable pickling requires specific fermentation equipment (like a pickling crock), the quick pickling method—which is perfect for beginners—requires just a pot, a heat source, and some airtight jars. This method is not only an easy entrance into the world of pickling, but is also an affordable and delicious way to preserve your favorite vegetables and fruits.
Airtight jars - Make sure you choose a completely secure container, which will keep your pickles fresh—and your fridge from smelling like vinegar. These classic and affordable Ball Quart Jars are a great place to start.
Vinegar - While the type of vinegar used in pickling is flexible depending on your personal taste preferences, commonly used vinegars included distilled white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar, and rice wine vinegar.
Salt – For the pickling process, you’ll want to avoid table salt and any salt that contains additives. Stick to pure sea salt, or a salt that is specifically made for canning or pickling.
Sugar – While white sugar is typically used in the pickling process, feel free to switch it up and try out substitutes like brown sugar, honey, or agave for some variations in flavor.
Water – Although pretty much any water can be used in this process, the prefered type is purified water, as hard water can potentially discolor vegetables over time.
Spices and Herbs – The sky’s the limit when it comes to the spices, herbs, and other flavorings used in your homemade pickles, allowing for total creativity and personalization. Some classic pickling spices and herbs include whole peppercorns, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, bay leaves, allspice, red pepper flakes, dill, and chilies. The addition of garlic cloves and jalapenos will add a kick for those who prefer their pickles on the spicy side.
Produce – The options are also endless for the star of the show: the produce. While standard cucumbers are a great way to test the pickling waters, other awesome produce options for pickling include peppers, tomatoes, onions, green beans, beets, cauliflower, carrots, mushrooms, squash, asparagus, jalapenos, and radishes, as well as fruits like strawberries, peaches, watermelon, and cherries.
WATCH: How to Make Avocado Pickles
Prep your vegetables or fruits. While some tougher vegetables should be cooked prior to pickling, like beets, others should simply be blanched to ensure they’ll maintain their texture, like asparagus. Cut your vegetables down to a size and shape that comfortably fits within your pickling jars. Common shapes include thin disks, spears, or kept whole in the case of smaller, bite-sized vegetables.
Season your produce. Distribute your produce among your pickling jars—making sure to leave enough head room for the brine—and add in the seasonings and herbs of your choice, playing around with the flavors to create unique batches. For each standard-sized jar, about ½ teaspoon of each spice and a couple of sprigs of herbs should do the trick.
Prepare your brine. Though the sugar and salt content of each brine will change depending on the flavor you’re hoping to achieve, as a basic pickle brine rule there should be equal parts water and vinegar. For a basic starter brine, try out this recipe. Or for a fruit pickle brine, try this sweeter mixture with a higher sugar content. From there, you can adjust your recipe for different levels of sweet, salty, and bitter.
Cook and cover. Combine your vinegar, water, sugar, and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar. Let boil for 2 minutes and then remove from heat. Pour the hot brine into the pre-seasoned jars of pickles until the liquid has completely covered the vegetables. Securely cover the jars, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving.
Quick pickles are the best way to ease into the pickling process but must be stored in the fridge, rather than on a shelf, and will not last as long as canned and fermented pickles. Your quick pickles will stay good in the fridge for a month. Love having your own pickles on hand? Maybe try your hand at real-deal canning next!
Then, impress your friends and family with your new skills with recipes like Carnitas Tacos with Pickled Red Onions, a Beet Ribbon Salad with Lemon and Pickled Shallots, Cheesy Nachos with Pinto Bean Salsa and Pickled Jalapenos, and Pickled Summer Squash Quesadillas.