Once essential methods of making fruits and veggies close to imperishable during endless stretches of cold and frozen earth, pickling and preservation have evolved into artful ways of capturing vibrant flavors of the seasons, placing them under glass in a kind of butterfly collection of beautiful flavors to enjoy any time of the year.
Pickling employs the help of Mother Nature’s own natural fermentation skills, and while it may seem simple, there’s a chance for mold or other harmful bacteria or pathogens to make their way into your pickle jars. Be extra diligent in handling each step with care and cleanliness. The basic idea is that you want to keep in all the good bacteria while sealing out the bad stuff. If you doubt the safety of anything you make at home, do not eat it.
Regardless of what kind of pickle you’re making, start with the freshest ingredients. The point is to preserve your bounty’s flavor at its finest. Discard the soft, the wilted, the limp. Then roll up your sleeves and get started.
To salt or to vinegar?
Pickling can be done utilizing one of two methods—with salt as the primary instigator of fermentation or with vinegar, which is a quicker process. If you choose to use vinegar, your flavors will vary depending on the type, from the delicate hint of rice vinegar to the bracing rush of apple cider vinegar. On the other hand, the salt-brine method offers up flavor, clean and simple, allowing the personality of the pickled veggie or fruit to dominate.
Basic pickling with vinegar
Rather than fermenting, pickles in a vinegar solution settle in for a long-term preservation. The acetic acid in vinegar makes this an ideal method to create an environment where no nasty microorganisms can thrive.
Sterilize your instruments
Use clean towels, rinse your utensils with boiling water, and boil your jars and lids for a few minutes before starting.
Gather your ingredients
Wash and trim your veggies—be it the classic cucumber or something more daring, like purple cauliflower or pearl onions—so that they will fit nicely when placed lengthwise into your jar. Thickness may vary from ½ to 1 ½ inches, depending on the vegetable—any thicker and it may not pickle completely. The harder the produce, the longer it will take to pickle; the more porous, the quicker. Choose your salt, preferably of the pickling, canning, or kosher variety. (Iodized salt will cloud pickling water and doesn’t impart as much flavor.) You’ll also need water (distilled or filtered is best) and any spices, herbs, or other tasty ingredients you want to throw in.
Make your pickle juice
The following are the basic pickle proportions. Use more or less, depending on your needs and taste.
4 pounds any vegetables
2 ¾ cups vinegar (apple cider, rice, white, or red wine)
3 cups water
¼ cup salt
Mix the salt, vinegar, and water in a regular saucepan on medium heat, stirring until the salt dissolves, and bring to a boil.
Pack your jars
Add your selected herbs and spices to the bottom of each jar, saving a bit extra for topping up at the end. Ensure that your jar is at room temperature or even a little warm—not cold since this could cause the glass to crack when coming in contact with the just-boiled pickle juice. Add your veggies, packing them in tightly. Pour in the hot pickle juice, leaving at least ½ inch of space at the top of the jar. Throw in the remaining herbs and spices and screw on the lid securely with a kitchen towel.
Seal the deal
Carefully place your sealed jars in a sturdy stockpot with at least one inch of water covering the lids. Bring to a boil for seven to 10 minutes. (Add five minutes for every 1,000 feet above sea level, depending on where you live.) When in doubt, it’s better to round up estimates since the longer you boil your jars, the more bacteria you’re killing. Using tongs and keeping safely away from the hot water, pull out the jars and set them aside to cool. You’ll hear the lids pop from the air compression—the sound of all that pickle goodness being properly sealed in. Once cool, tap the jars gently on your countertop to remove any air bubbles.
From here on in, let the veggies do the work. The longer they sit, the more pickled they will become. Vinegar pickles can last up to three weeks in the pantry and around a year when refrigerated.
Basic pickling with salt
Lacto-fermentation is a traditional method of making pickles without vinegar. Plus, you keep all the “good for you” bacteria. Pickling with salt follows the same basic instructions as the vinegar-based method, with a few key differences (the brine and packing). There is no need to seal your jars in boiling water. The holy triumvirate of water, salt, and veggie—used in all great lacto-fermented recipes, from German sauerkraut to Korean kimchi—works its magic.
Make your brine
For every 1 quart of water, add about 1 ½ tablespoons of salt. With this ration, use approximately 3 pounds of veggies. Combine water and salt in a large jar or bottle (a clean wine bottle works just fine) and shake well to ensure that all the salt has dissolved.
Pack your jars
Add your selected spices to the bottom of the jars. Pack your veggies, and then pour in the brine, leaving at least ½ inch of space at the top of the jar. Screw the lid on tight. Leave the jars in a cool place and wait about six weeks before eating. Once you open a jar, keep it in the fridge. Whereas vinegar pickles can last for about a year in the fridge, salt pickles will only last about a month.
*This is an excerpt from “The Kaufmann Mercantile Guide.”