I tried my hand at pickling for the first time this week. After a bit of research, a quick chat with my dad, and about 15 minutes of prep, I was admiring a beautiful jar of homemade pickles-to-be. Like so many other kitchen techniques I’ve recently challenged myself to, I was dumbfounded at how fast and simple it was.
While we immediately associate pickling with cucumbers—THE official pickles—you can conceivably pickle just about any kind of produce. All “pickling” really refers to is the preserving of foodstuff in vinegar or a brine solution.
The process was borne of the need to preserve perishable goods before iceboxes or refrigerators were invented. It’s a great way to use up extra produce we have lying around, and the process breaks down constituents in the food, making pickled goods easier to digest and more beneficial to our bodies.
The process of pickling can also totally transform the flavor and especially texture of tougher veggies. And not just veggies—one of my favorite pickles is watermelon rind, which isn’t palatable at all in its fresh state, but becomes soft and tangy in a pickle jar. Pickled eggs and pickled pork are also popular down here in the South.
There are two main ways to pickle. One uses a simple salt solution, often combined with whole spices, to ferment the pickles via the production of lactic acid and friendly probiotic bacteria. This is how your grandma probably made pickles, and is the traditional method for making Korean kimchi, Japanese Hakusai no Shiozuke, and German sauerkraut (which, for the record, was probably also of Asian influence). It usually takes several weeks.
Then there’s quick-process pickling, also called “fresh-pack” pickling. This method is much quicker, doesn’t require any heating or monitoring, and is made with a vinegar or other acidic solution. It can be ready in hours, which is great for all of us busybodies and instant gratification junkies. This is the method used for Mexican escabeche.
Here’s how it’s done:
Step 1: Sterilize a clean jar with a screw-top lid by running it through the dishwasher or placing it in a 200˚F oven for 10 minutes. Allow to cool.
Step 2: Pack the jar with whatever you desire to pickle, gradually sprinkling in a couple teaspoons of salt and spices as you go. Longer items (like asparagus) or spears can be stood upright. You can also try alternating layers of different-colored veggies, or mixing them all up together. Make sure to pack the jar tightly, using a long spoon or other tool to move pieces around and fill the space.
Step 3: Pour vinegar of choice into the jar to fill. You should need about 1 cup of vinegar for every 1 1/2 cups of pickling goods. The vinegar won’t fill the jar as far if you haven’t packed down your goods. Cover and refrigerate.
Your pickles will be ready in a few hours, and they’ll get even tastier after a few days. Make sure to keep them submerged in vinegar at all times, pouring a little more in if necessary.
Many recipes call for blanching vegetables before pickling, and others call for heating your vinegar or brine solution before you pour it in. Blanching creates a softer pickle and opens up the pores of the produce to absorb more of the solution’s flavor. Heating your brine allows the spices to dissolve and distribute evenly, and also softens your goods a bit when you pour it over top.
Neither is necessary, but both produce nice results. I’m personally a fan of raw and simple, and love the bright crispness that fresh-packing pickles in cold vinegar produces. You can put fresh-pack pickling to the test later this week, with our recipe for Red Onion and Green Tomato Pickles.