Preserving foods by pickling dates back thousands of years. Over the centuries, it has emerged in numerous cultures around the world and taken a wide range of forms. The motivation to pickle came from a common goal: to preserve for future consumption. Nowadays, the technique is still used to capture harvest's bounty and ensure ample food for winter. Here are some guidelines for pickling at home, and the key ingredients involved:
An easy way to think about handling produce for pickling is to remember the two Fs: fresh and fast. Produce pickled at its peak of freshness will invariably yield the best result. The freshest produce will also have the most crispy texture, necessary for a good pickle. Vegetables grown in your own garden make the most delicious pickles, and preserving ingredients you have grown yourself inspires a sense of pride. Otherwise, look to the farmers' market for fresh vegetables to pickle, avoiding ones with blemishes or soft areas. Fast is equally important—make your pickles as soon as possible after picking or purchasing your produce. Maintaining the integrity of the vegetables is an important factor in the pickling process.
Salt is a key ingredient in a wide range of pickling methods. In many brines, salt tempers the balance of flavors, as it also does when you add salt to food at the table. In some cases, salt helps draw water out of vegetables, such as cucumbers, to improve their texture. Kosher salt and pickling salt, which are nearly identical, are the two main types of salt used for making shelf-stable pickles. Do not substitute common table salt. Some people add a lot of salt to brines in order to achieve a pronounced salty flavor—but the subtleties of spices, herbs and citrus can generate equally distinctive final results.
Acids are a vital element in making shelf-stable pickles. Properly sealed jars of pickles can remain on the shelf for a long period of time because they have achieved an acceptable level of acidification, the pH of the contents (pickles and brine) has been stabilized, and all bacteria have been eradicated. Acid in pickling takes two forms: vinegar and citric acid. Vinegar, an acetic acid, works on pickled vegetables to stabilize their pH levels. Different vinegars have different degrees of strength, or grain. Most vinegars commonly used in pickling have a grain strength of 5 or 6 percent. Avoid using vinegars with a grain strength lower than what the recipe requires, as this may result in pickles that don't acidify properly. Citric acid takes the form of juice from citrus: lemon, lime, and orange. It brightens and embellishes the flavors of pickles and complements other ingredients, but it doesn't usually provide the basis for acidification.
Heat penetration is another factor in acidification. Brines are brought to a boil (212°F) and poured quickly into jars before their temperature drops below 195°F, which typically takes a few minutes. Jars remain in the boiling-water bath for a specified length of time to ensure that the core temperature of the contents reaches a level that will kill any form of bacteria present. If the jars have been properly sealed, the combination of vinegar and heat penetration will reliably kill bacteria and the contents will be safe to eat.
The combination of a vegetable (or fruit), a vinegar and pickling spice defines the pickler's palate. But it is perhaps the pickling spice—the unique and flavorful mix of herbs and spices added to the brine—that plays the most creative and distinctive role. Different combinations of herbs and spices help create pickles with distinctive flavors, and experimenting with these elements is where you can make your mark as a pickler. As you gain confidence, alter recipes to suit your tastes. Remember to record your modifications so that when you hit on something you like, you can easily do it again.
Pickling spice is a bit like barbecue sauce; everyone has a personal style and taste preference. For an aromatic approach, you might include as many as 6 or 8 spices—such as whole allspice, peppercorns, dill or mustard seeds, and bay leaves. You can purchase pickling spice blends or make your own. As a starting point, try our Homemade Pickling Spice recipe.