Natural Pickles and Sweet Pickling Spice Recipe

Combine pickling spice and a mild brine to start some natural pickles, which take advantage of naturally-occurring beneficial bacteria in the air to begin fermentation.

From "Charcuterie"
August 2015

  • Pickles
    Most hearty vegetables pickle well, and making natural pickles only requires a mild brine and some pickling spice.
    Photo by Fotolia/Peteers
  • Charcuterie
    Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn share the techniques of salting, smoking and curing meat in “Charcuterie,” from classic to contemporary recipes.
    Cover courtesy W. W. Norton & Company
  • Pickles
  • Charcuterie

Total Hands-On Time: 10 min

Preparation Time: 5 min

Cook Time: 5 min

Yield: 1 cup

Charcuterie (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005), by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn, is a comprehensive guide to smoking, curing, brining and preserving meat. Classic and contemporary charcuterie recipes are presented with clear illustrations and instructions so even beginners can enjoy the rich flavors of cured and smoked meats.

You don’t need vinegar to pickle vegetables. Vegetables submerged in a mild brine and left at cool room temperature (65 to 70 degrees F/18 to 21 degrees C) will, in a week’s time, take on an appealingly sour flavor as the desirable bacteria create lactic acid—thus, the pickle. The developing acidic environment prevents the growth of harmful bacteria that would otherwise cause spoilage. The key to the fermentation is a mild brine that is just salty enough to kill that bacteria but not so salty as to be unpalatable or to prevent the Lactobacillus bacteria, present in the atmosphere, from producing the necessary acid.

Our friend Michael Pardus, a chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, often finds himself with an abundance of fresh vegetables in late summer and has been experimenting with natural pickles like these so that the exquisite Hudson Valley produce can be enjoyed year-round. He’s learned that a 5-percent brine (50 grams of salt per liter, or a little less than 2 ounces, about 1/4 cup, per quart) is perfect for just about any vegetable. Hearty root vegetables such as carrots make excellent pickles.

“I’ve found that carrots, cucumbers, small turnips, radishes, green tomatoes, peppers—both hot and sweet—onions, green beans, mushrooms, and eggplants all work well,” Michael says.

The quality of the vegetables going in (especially with cukes) makes a big difference in the success of the pickle. Also, it can be difficult to pickle in warm weather, because temperatures above 75 degrees F/23 degrees C can allow bad bacteria to take over. You can pickle in the refrigerator, but it can take three times as long, depending on the density of the vegetable. The other critical matter is ensuring that all the vegetables are kept submerged. Otherwise, Michael says, “evil molds and slimy things start to grow.” Aromatics, garlic, herbs, and chiles all add flavor and, presumably, more helpful bacteria for a livelier pickle.

A classic sauerkraut is a pure form of pickling: sliced cabbage is salted, weighted and covered, and left in a cool place to ferment, the cabbage releasing enough water to create its own brine.

Sweet Pickling Spice Recipe

Commercial versions of pickling spice, available in the spice section of the grocery store, are acceptable, but this version is a little sweeter smelling and doesn’t have the pungent bay leaf aroma that dominates most store-bought brands. It’s a fabulous mixture. Make big batches and freeze it to have on hand.


• 2 tablespoons/20 grams black peppercorns
• 2 tablespoons/20 grams mustard seeds
• 2 tablespoons/20 grams coriander seeds
• 2 tablespoons/12 grams hot red pepper flakes
• 2 tablespoons/14 grams allspice berries
• 1 tablespoon/8 grams ground mace
• 2 small cinnamon sticks, crushed or broken into pieces
• 24 bay leaves, crumbled
• 2 tablespoons/6 grams whole cloves
• 1 tablespoon/8 grams ground ginger


1. Lightly toast the peppercorns, mustard seeds, and coriander seeds in a small dry pan, then smash with the side of a knife just to crack them.

2. Combine the cracked spices with the remaining ingredients, mixing well. Store in a tightly sealed plastic container or glass jar.

More from Charcuterie:

Brining Meat and Herb-Brined Roast Chicken Recipe
Smoking Meat at Home

Reprinted from Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking & Curing, Revised and Updated by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. Copyright © 2013, 2005 by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 

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