Few things compare to the crisp of a really good pickle. Store bought pickles are great but learning to pickle your own food gives you a wider variety of pickles that you may not find in the shop and you’ll have pickles at whatever time you need them! You can experiment with different flavour combinations plus it’s lots of fun!
Although pickling has become more popular in the recent years, its existence dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, about 4000 years ago with Cleopatra and Julius Caesar being some of the popular figures in history to favour pickles. Simply put, pickling is preserving food in a brine or vinegar. The vinegar is what preserves the food but in the ‘old fashioned way”, a salt and water brine is used instead. The saltwater solution is left to sit with the food for some time until the sugars break down and form lactic acid. The lactic acid is what provides the acidity for preservation through fermentation which has a host of health benefits. Only sour pickles are made by fermenting. Traditional pickling with vinegar calls for canning the produce in a water bath so that it’s shelf stable but today we’ll be talking about refrigerator pickles (which takes less time and patience), using cucumbers to demonstrate.
What you need for pickling
- Pickles have 3 essential components: vegetables+brine+flavours. First, you’ll want to pick what you’ll be pickling. Some of the best pickles are made from naturally crisp and firm vegetables; think carrots, cucumbers, onions, radishes brussel sprouts but you can pickle so much more than these (read on for more). Always cut off the ends and stems as the stems contain an enzyme which will make your pickles soggy. You can cut the food to fit into your pickling container or you could leave it whole although some foods will need some precooking to pickle whole.For these cucumbers, you can cover them with cubed or crushed ice for half an hour to make them crispy.
- Next, the pickling liquid. The pickling liquid will both preserve the food and add flavour, and it’s where we always have the most fun adding different flavours! A basic brine contains equal parts vinegar and water, plus salt and sometimes sugar. You always want to make sure you use a vinegar with at least 5% acidity. You can then add flavourings like dill, bay leaf, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, cumin, rosemary and your other favourites. We’ve added a helpful guide below to help you experiment with your favourite flavourings. Once you add your flavours to your brine, bring it to a boil then lower the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes.
3. Allow the brine to cool down and pour over the produce and any other aromatics you may choose (we added scallions, ginger and chilli to our cucumbers). Fully submerge your food in the pickling liquid and store the container in the fridge. Your pickles will last about a month.
- Use pickling or canning salt. If you can’t find either, use kosher or sea salt but keep in mind that they contain large crystals so they’ll have a different volume than pickling salt. Weigh the salt instead to match the original recipe to keep your pickles from turning out too salty or not salty enough. Using table salt is typically not recommended as it can make your pickling liquid cloudy but besides that, it’s fine to use.
- Use fresh produce- your pickles will retain better texture and taste than old produce
- Always use whole spices for your flavourings – ground spices will cloud your liquid
- Always use vinegar with 5% acidity to ensure your food is safe to eat and your pickles come out just right. The National Centre for Home Food Preservation published a table to guide you through some of the problems and fixes for pickled foods:
|Soft or slippery pickles (If spoilage is evident, do not eat.)||1. Vinegar too weak|
2. Insufficient amount of brine
3.Moldy garlic or spices
4. Blossom ends not removed from cucumbers
|1. Use vinegar of at least 5% acidity|
2. Ensure cucumbers are immersed in brine
3. Use fresh ingredients
4. Slice off the ends of cucumbers
|Strong, bitter taste||1. Spices cooked too long in vinegar or too many spices used |
2. Vinegar too strong
3.Using salt substitutes
|1. Follow directions for amount of spices to use and the boiling time|
2. Use vinegar with 5% acidity
3. Potassium chloride, the ingredient in most of these, causes bitterness. Use pickling salt
|Shriveled Pickles||1. Placing cucumbers in too strong a brine, too heavy syrup or too strong vinegar||1. Follow a reliable recipe. Use amounts of salt & sugar called for in recipe and vinegar that is 5% acidity|
|Dark or discolored pickles (If brass, copper or zinc utensils and brining equipment were used, do not use pickles.)||1. Minerals in hard water|
2. Ground spices used
3. Iodised salt used
|1. Use soft water( to turn hard water soft, boil it for at least 5 minutes. Let cool and let the mineral deposits sink to the bottom. Pour out the soft water and leave the mineral deposits)|
2. Use whole spices
3. Use pickling or canning salt
|White sediment in jar||Salt contains an anti-caking agent or other additives||Use pickling or canning salt|
If you want to take it a step further and can your pickles, we advise you follow a specific recipe when you make canned pickles, since canning has potential health and safety risks if done incorrectly. You can find a great canning overview and specific recipes here https://nchfp.uga.edu/how/can_home.html#gsc.tab=0
Now that you know the basics, we hope you’ll feel more confident to try out or continue experimenting with pickling foods yourself and soon enough, you’ll find it’s no big dill.