The long history of the word “pickle” tells you all you need to know about making pickles at home.
The word first appeared in English during the obscure centuries before Chaucer, and it likely originated from an even older root word meaning “a thing that pricks or has piquancy.” By Shakespeare’s day—roughly 400 years ago—“pickle” had developed its modern usage. In Anthony and Cleopatra, the queen threatens to have a servant whipped with wires and thrown into a vat of pickling brine, which she promises will be a stinging punishment. The poor guy was about to find himself “in a pickle” as we would say today—thrown into an uncomfortable situation.
The takeaway is that a pickle’s tangy taste—its pleasant, mild sting—is caused by acidity. At the most basic level, a pickle is nothing more than a vegetable submerged in an acidic liquid. From a food preservation standpoint, acidity is what preserves the vegetable, and as mentioned in my last post, acidity is also the silver bullet against botulism and other food-borne disease.
This Universal Pickle Recipe uses vinegar for acidity, and it’s one of a class known as “vinegar pickles” or “quick pickles.” In addition to the familiar cucumber pickles, you can also use this recipe to pickle sturdy vegetables including green beans, zucchini, carrots, celery, onions, beets, and even some greens, as described below.
The technique is safe, very easy, and flexible enough to adapt to almost any taste.
The Basic Brine
According to USDA guidelines, the key ratio for making pickle brine is one part vinegar to one part water. Note that the vinegar must have at least 5% acidity. (Most do, but check the label to verify.) Always use the best vinegar you can get, comparable to what you would use to make salad dressing, because the vinegar will be the most pronounced flavor in the jar. The quality of the pickle is in the brine.
My favorite vinegar for pickling is mild white wine vinegar, followed by lightly sweet apple cider vinegar. Red wine vinegar works well with beets. Malt vinegar is good with onions. (Balsamic vinegar can also work with onions.) The only vinegar I avoid is white vinegar with its harsh, tongue-stripping flavor and cleaning-product smell. Note that rice vinegar is usually 4 percent acidity.
Seasoning the Brine
So long as you stick to the basic ration of one part 5 percent vinegar to one part water, you can season your pickling brine to taste. Salt is always a key component, both for flavor and because the salt helps to crisp the vegetable. Almost all pickles also contain spices, and you can add any combination of black peppercorns, dill seed, coriander seed, cumin seed, mustard seed, allspice, mace, cinnamon, cloves, saffron, etc. (Ready-made pickling spice, available at the grocery store, pre-mixes some of the above.) I often use aromatic fresh herbs for flavor, such as dill weed, tarragon, basil, Thai basil, etc. Feel free to also add a clove of garlic, a slice of shallot, or a few cocktail onions to every jar. Dried red chilies or a slice of jalapeño pepper give heat. Finally, some pickles benefit from a touch of sweetness: for pickled ramps, I stir in a bit of honey or sugar.
Again, as long as you stick to the basic 1:1 ratio, you can flavor the brine with any of the above seasonings. Go wild with your creativity.
Vegetable Pro Tips
Wash and trim the vegetables as you would for making a salad or a vegetable side dish. Cut them into whatever bite-sized shapes you like—spears, sticks, chunks, rounds, or wavy-cut chips. I always spend a little extra time to cut the vegetables neatly: pretty counts. You can pack the vegetables into yours jar raw, blanched, or cooked.
Here are a few specific pro tips to get you started.
Cucumbers: The varieties sold as Kirby or pickling cucumbers will give you the best crunch, but other types work as well. Generally I don’t peel cucumbers. For the best texture: trim and cut the cucumbers. Sprinkle with two tablespoons of kosher salt, and toss to distribute the salt. Place the cucumbers in a colander, cover with two trays of ice, and set aside for two hours. Rinse quickly in cold water, then pack raw.
Green beans: Before packing, blanch the beans lightly in salted water for 90 seconds, then “shock” in an ice-water bath to arrest cooking.
Summer Squash, including zucchini: Zucchini make wonderful pickles. (My secret ingredient is a pinch of saffron in the brine.) Slice yellow crookneck squash into rounds. If you wish, salt and drain any summer squash, as for cucumbers.
Carrots: Before packing, blanch for two to three minutes in salted water. Shock in an ice-water bath.
Onions and garlic: All the allium, including ramps and garlic scapes, make delicious and useful pickles. Garlic cloves will sometimes turn bright blue or green from chemical reactions: don’t worry, they are still safe to eat.
Beets: Before packing, boil or roast whole beets until tender, 30-60 minutes depending on size. Slip them out of their skins and cut into manageable pieces.
Greens: Chard stems, trimmed into sticks and lightly blanched in salted water, make good pickles. Purslane, a succulent wild green, is one of my favorite pickles—flavor the brine with lots of whole coriander seed.
Herbs: If you have an abundance of tarragon or Thai basil, fill a jar with a several fronds of fresh herbs, and cover with straight, undiluted vinegar. The resulting aromatic vinegar will last indefinitely.
Vinegar pickles can be canned for long-term shelf storage, if you like. (More on that in an upcoming post.) But for the best flavor and crispest texture, I store the sealed jars in the refrigerator, where they will keep for weeks.
The Universal Pickling Recipe
Yields two quarts
Like a one-size-fits-all garment, this recipe may require minor adjustments to fit your needs. In testing the recipe yesterday, for instance, I found that I needed a touch over two pounds of cucumbers to fill two quart jars, but two pounds of small, tender green beans fit exactly.
• 2 pounds fresh, firm vegetables, such as cucumbers, squash, green beans, etc.
• 2 cups 5-percent vinegar
• 2 cups water
• 1 tbsp kosher salt (or half as much fine sea salt)
• optional: 1 teaspoon honey or sugar
• 2 whole garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
• 4-6 three-inch fronds of fresh herb, such as dill weed, tarragon, Thai basil, etc.
• 1/2 tsp black peppercorns
• 1/2 tsp whole-seed spices, such as coriander or mustard
• optional: a very few "woody" spices, such as four whole cloves
• optional: two small dried red chili or slices of hot pepper
• optional: two thick slices of shallot or a half-dozen pearl onions
1. Trim and slice the vegetables as if making a salad or vegetable side dish. (See above for suggestions.)
2. Combine the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar or honey, if using, in a small pot. Bring to a boil, and remove from heat.
3. Pack the vegetables snugly into two clean quart jars. As you work, add the garlic and fresh herbs. At the end, add the peppercorns and whole-seed spices. Add the optional woody spices, chilies, hot pepper, shallot, or onions, if using.
4. Bring the vinegar brine back to a boil, and ladle over the vegetables to fill the jar. Seal the jars. Allow to cool overnight, and store in the refrigerator for up to a month.
Next up in Home Canning 101: the Universal Fermenting Recipe.
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