This diary is the first installment in a series I am doing on pickling. There’s nothing like good old home-made pickles--nothing you can buy in the grocery store matches the stuff you can make yourself! In this series, I’ll show you how to make both quick and fermented pickles, and how to make pickled fruits and relishes. We’ll also talk a bit about pickling eggs and meats. When most people think about the word “pickles” they think of either dill or sweet pickles--but truthfully, you can pickle just about any fruit or vegetable.
When I was a kid growing up in eastern Kentucky, we used to make sauerkraut in a big earthenware crock every year. My mom would spend hours chopping up heads of cabbage by hand, and then she would pack the kraut into the crock out in our pump house--a building my dad had built out of stone, which doubled as a sort of root cellar. When the kraut was ready, she would spend a day packing it into jars, and canning it outside on a wood stove she used just for canning. I used to love eating that sauerkraut right out of the jar. Sometimes, she would make pickled corn or green beans, or a type of sauerkraut the people on my mom’s side of the family called “Hot Jack” that would make flames shoot out of your eyeballs and steam roll out of your ears. She would also make spiced peaches and apple chutney, which we often enjoyed around Christmas when family members from out of state would all come in to visit.
Pickling is an ancient art--some archaeologists believe pickling first began in Mesopotamia prior to 2400 BC, after which the practice spread around the world. Pickling was used to preserve a wide variety of foods, from vegetables, fruits and nuts, to meats and fish. Around 4,000 years ago, people in India started making pickles out of cucumbers--the forerunner of the dill pickles we still love to eat today. In ancient Egypt, Cleopatra once claimed eating pickled foods helped her maintain her beauty, while Aristotle claimed eating pickles held many health benefits.
Napoleon loved pickles so much he offered a cash prize to anyone who could find a way to preserve them long-term so his troops could eat them while out in the field. A man named Nicholas Appert discovered that you could lengthen the shelf life of pickles by processing them in sealed glass jars in a water bath canner. America got it’s name from pickle maker Amerigo Vespucci, a contemporary of Christopher Columbus. The Dutch can probably be credited with creating popularizing dill pickles in America. They brought recipes to the Pennsylvania Dutch colony for relishes, chutneys, and a dish called chow-chow.
Even today, pickling is probably the most common method of food preservation in the world. In Europe, dishes containing pickled carrots, beets, cabbage, and mushrooms are very common. Pickled herring is enjoyed during holidays like Christmas and Easter in Sweden. Pickled eggs and onions are commonly served in pubs in the UK.
In the Middle East, pickled cauliflower is often eaten with fresh hummus and pita bread. The dill pickles commonly made in Iraq are very similar to the ones we enjoy here in the US. An appetizer called “shipkah,” made from hot peppers, is commonly served in restaurants.
In India, oils are commonly used in some pickling recipes, with mango pickles being very popular. Seasonings such as citron, red chilli powder, garlic, and ginger are commonly used seasonings in Indian pickling recipes. In Korea, a dish called kimchi, which contains pickled cabbage and radishes, is a staple food throughout eastern Asia. The Chinese pickle many kinds of fruits, vegetables and meats, using a brine made with salt and vinegars often made from rice or wheat. Watermelon is not generally eaten raw in China--it is usually pickled first.
In Japan, tsukemono are eaten at nearly every meal and are common as a snack. In the cookbook, A Taste of Japan, the author states that, "It is said that in Japan there are four thousand different kinds of tsukemono and over one hundred different techniques for making them" If it’s possible to pickle something, the Japanese have probably found a way to do it--they are masters of the art of pickling. (I’ve been working on learning some Japanese pickling techniques myself.) Common pickling ingredients in tsukemono include miso, a type of fermented bean paste, sake, soy sauce, and rice bran.
Nearly any fruit, vegetable, or meat can be preserved by pickling. When you pickle something, you’re basically just soaking it in a brine solution (salt and water), often with the addition of an acidic ingredient-most commonly vinegar, in order to create conditions that inhibit the growth of microorganisms that can cause the food to spoil, and encourage the growth of organisms that produce the finished product’s taste. Sugar is often added to pickling recipes--not only because it gives the food a sweet taste, but also because sugar can have antimicrobial effects in some foods. When pickling fruits, sugar often replaces some or all of the salt used in the recipe. Spices such as garlic, cinnamon, or mustard seed also possess antimicrobial properties, and are very common in pickling spice recipes. The trick to successfully pickling something is to find a combination of brine, sugar, an acidifier, and spices that will produce a good tasting end product with a pH lower than 4.6--necessary to inhibit the growth of botulism spores.
There are several different techniques for making pickles. The quickest and easiest way is to simply make refrigerator pickles--these types of pickles don’t need to be canned. You can make them in any food-grade covered container you happen to have on hand, whether that’s a large covered bowl, a recycled glass jar from food you bought at the grocery store, or even a ziploc bag. If you’re using mason jars, you don’t necessarily need to sterilize them before you pickle in them, though you can if you want. All you have to do is just mix some vinegar and water with the pickling mix of your choice, heat it up, and pour it over your vegetables in the container you are going to use. Then, just cover it, allow it to cool to room temperature, and stick it in the fridge. Let it sit for at least 24 hours before you eat it--it’s best to wait at least a week. The only big drawbacks to making refrigerator pickles is that they must be kept in the fridge, and they won’t keep more than two or three months--however, you can freeze your refrigerator pickles and they will keep for up to six months. Refrigerator pickles are great if you want to be able to preserve small batches at a time. At the end of this diary, I’ll walk you through the process of making some refrigerator pickles.
Quick process pickles are a lot like making refrigerator pickles--the only difference is that you will need to use canning jars and lids to make these. The jars, lids, and rings will need to be sterilized. In general, the vegetables are packed in the jars raw, and the pickling mixture is poured over them. Then you put on the lids and rings and process them in a water bath canner. (If you need information on how to use a water bath canner, see the diary I recently wrote on using a water bath canner--or use one of the many resources available online or in canning books.) Once you are done processing the jars, you will need to let the pickles sit for about two weeks before they will be ready to eat.
Fermenting is the time-honored method of pickling. It is also the most time consuming, but often produces results you can’t get using the quick process method. It is also the best method to use if you are going to be making large batches. Fermented pickles are usually made in an earthenware crock--though you can also use glass jars, or even a food grade plastic bucket in a pinch. You can sometimes get food grade buckets for free if you ask around at some of your local restaurants. Just wash the bucket thoroughly before you use it--in order to remove the “pickle” smell fill it with water, and add a little bit of bleach. Let it soak for a few days, then dump out the bleach water and rinse it out. Let the bucket air out a few days before you use it--until the bleach smell is gone. When making fermented pickles, you simply pack the food in the container you are going to use, then cover it with the brine solution. Cover the container with a few layers of cheesecloth or a piece of clean, white cotton. Top the fabric with a plate that is slightly smaller in diameter than the container you are using, then weight it down with some jars filled with water or even some clean rocks. The food should be submerged by at least a few inches. Place the crock in a cool place--if the area where the crock sits gets too warm, it will make the food go soft. Every day or so, you will need to skim off the brine that rises to the top, and will need to remove any food that looks like it might be trying to spoil--since this could cause the whole batch to go bad. When you start seeing bubbles, you know the food you are pickling is starting to ferment--when the bubbles stop, it’s done. This can take up to about three weeks for most recipes. Then, you can either store the finished product in the crock if you will be using all of it relatively soon, or pack it in jars and process it in a canner for longer storage.
Pickling fruits is much like pickling vegetables--the only difference is that you usually use sugar, instead of salt in these pickling recipes. Relishes and chutneys have chopped fruits and/or vegetables, and are often heavily spiced.
The type of vinegar you choose to use in your pickling recipes will have a definite effect on how the finished product tastes. Plain old white vinegar is best for things like pickled green beans--while cider vinegar imparts a somewhat fruity flavor to the finished product. Note that the level of acidity can vary between different types of vinegar--you will want to make sure that with any pickling recipe, you are using the proper ratio of acid, salt, water and sugar. Canning, pickling, or kosher salt are the best types for pickling, but you can also use plain old non-iodized table salt. Plain table salt, however, will make the pickles look a little cloudy, but it doesn’t hurt them in terms of food safety. Some people like to use sea salt in their pickling recipes. Alum can be added to cucumber pickles to make them more crunchy--though it is not necessary. If you can get them, a few grape leaves in the bottom of each jar will also make your pickles crunchier. Another method of making “crunchy” pickles is to use a low-temperature pasteurization treatment--something I’ll cover as the series goes on.
Another thing to consider when pickling is the type of cooking utensils you are using. Most pickling recipes require you to bring the brine mixture to a boil--if you boil the mixture in a metal pot, it will cause the pickles to turn cloudy. Use an enamel, glass, or Teflon coated saucepan for this purpose.
Now, I’m going to walk you through the process of making a batch of refrigerator dill pickles. To make these pickles, you will need a quart sized jar with a lid. It doesn’t need to be a canning jar--it can be any food-grade jar, including a recycled pickle jar from the store. You can also use a large covered bowl or casserole dish if you don’t have a jar handy. You will also need:
1-½ lbs. pickling cucumbers
¾ cup white vinegar, 5% acidity
¾ cup water
2 tsp. pickling salt
2 tsp. dill seed, or a few fronds of dill leaves (a whole head will be too much for just 1 quart jar)
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon sugar (optional)
Few red pepper flakes (optional)
Cut off the ends of the pickling cucumbers, and cut them into the desired shape--you can leave them whole if they are very small, cut them into spears, or slice them. I think my pickles turn out a little better if they are blanched for a minute or so--heat some water to boiling in a saucepan, and dip the cucumbers in the water for a minute or so. Combine the dill, garlic, and red pepper (if desired), and put this in the bottom of the jar. Pack the cucumbers into the jar and set aside. In another saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar (if desired) to a boil. Pour this mixture over the cucumbers and put the lid on the jar. Let the pickles cool to room temperature, then put them in the fridge. You can try them the next morning, but they taste best after about a week. These pickles will keep for as long as 2 or 3 months, as long as they remain refrigerated--or you can freeze these for up to six months.
Pickled carrots are also very easy to make in the fridge--and they make a good snack when you want something sweet, but need to stay away from the cookies and candy! Although many recipes for pickled carrots call for plain sugar, I like the taste honey imparts to them. You’ll need a quart jar with a lid, just like in the recipe above, or you can use any quart sized covered container. You will also need:
1 lb. of carrots, peeled and cut into sticks
1 cup cider vinegar
1-¼ cups water
¼ cup honey
1-½ tbsp. pickling salt
Blanch the carrots for one minute in boiling water. Pack the carrots into the jar you are going to use. Bring the vinegar, water, honey, and salt to a boil. Pour this mixture over the carrots, and put on the lid. Allow the pickled carrots to cool to room temperature, then put them in the fridge. Wait at least 24 hours before you eat them. This recipe will keep for up to two months in the refrigerator, but they never last that long around here…
Next time, I’ll show you how to make quick processed pickles--these will keep longer than refrigerator pickles--though they require a bit more work. There are many good sources of pickling recipes, both online and in a number of books on food preservation. The National Center for Home Food Preservation is a good online source.