Almost every vegetable garden explodes in July. My first July harvest included the last of the spring greens and asparagus, midcycle broccoli and garlic scapes, and the first snap peas, carrots, beets, and bulb onions. The harvest will go straight into our mouths, but as the yields grow jugs of vinegar and a box of salt will be front and center, ready for pickling.
All of my recently harvested vegetables can be pickled, along with snap beans, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, garlic, cabbage, and even fruit. That’s the beauty of pickling: it lets you preserve any low-acid vegetable safely. And like many of my favorite processing techniques, it’s endlessly variable. Various pickling techniques let you preserve everything from a single cucumber to a box of cukes. You can flavor them to fit any meal: American dills or bread-and-butters with burgers, Japanese kyuri asazuke with sushi, Indian kheer uragai with curry—and that’s just a few variations on cucumber pickles.
Bring on the Brine
Pickling relies on salt and acidity. These two factors not only prevent spoilage but also give pickles their distinctive kick and texture. In fermented pickles, salt is front and center—not necessarily on your tongue, but in the preservation process. With vinegar pickles, acidity is key to the brine. But in all cases, bad microbes are held at bay and the vegetables remain crisp, tasty, and safely edible for a long time.
Because every vegetable has a different natural acidity, or pH, tested pickle recipes can vary widely in the amount of vinegar and salt required. But as pickling expert Linda Ziedrich points out, equal parts 5% acidity vinegar and water or 3 tablespoons of salt in 1 gallon of water ensure you can pickle just about anything. In such solutions, small quantities of herbs, spices, and other flavorings won’t affect the balance, giving you plenty of creative freedom.
We often think of pickling as a hot, smelly process that creates rows of jars for your canning shelves yet leaves your kitchen reeking of vinegar for weeks. But some pickles are ready to eat in as little as 15 minutes. Chard stems are one speedy example: Drop 1/2 cup of chard stems into a hot solution of 1/2 cup of vinegar flavored with a bit of salt, sugar, garlic, and other spices. In the time it takes you to make a salad, rice dish, or pizza, the pickled chard is ready as a topping.
Refrigerator Vinegar Pickles
Many pickles benefit from a bit more time in the brine, allowing them to develop their ideal sour flavor and crunchy texture. But they’re still simple to make, and you can prepare them a jar at a time with the vegetables you have on hand. The best pickles are made with the freshest produce cut into a uniform shape. Tossing the vegetables with a bit of salt and letting them chill for a few hours draws out some of their natural water content, improving crispness—just be sure to rinse them afterward to avoid an overly salty taste.
Unless you’re using a tested recipe that calls for a specific vinegar or other acid, check the label of your vinegar bottle to ensure it’s been diluted by the manufacturer to 5% acidity—but otherwise grab cider, wine, malt, or any other 5% acidity vinegar as desired. Reserve your homemade vinegars for fresh use; unless you do your own testing, you can’t guarantee their acidity level. Forget distilled white vinegar; its best use is in cleaning your house.
Fermented pickles are some of the crispest, most delicious pickles you’ll ever taste. Salt brine creates bold sour and salty pickles that are never overpowered by a vinegar flavor. It also puts the kibosh on bad bacteria and enzymes, letting the good bacteria that are naturally present in the vegetables thrive, produce acid and other preserving byproducts, and prevent spoilage.
The idea of fermentation can be a bit daunting, mainly because it requires time. As the fermentation occurs, the jar of pickles changes visibly in ways that may seem odd or even unsettling to first-time fermenters. But like any preservation process, a little practice—and even my personal help in a workshop—produces amazing results. Pickles that are fermented and stored in the refrigerator never feel the extreme heat of processing, so they’re incredibly crisp. And the flavor profiles are complex thanks to the lactic and acetic acids, alcohol, carbon dioxide, and other compounds produced by the process.
By the first snowfall, my refrigerator shelves are loaded with jars of fermented and quick-processed pickles—so loaded that we had to reinforce the shelving. At some point, pickle fans need to turn to heat processing to ensure a winterlong supply. Fortunately, some pickles are safely preserved at pasteurizing temperatures below the full rolling boil of a typical water bath. Although pasteurizing keeps pickles in hot water longer, the lower temperature keeps them firmer and crisper. The salting and chilling recommended for refrigerator pickles also help with crispness, as do a few other tips and tricks I’ll share this month. After you’ve worked through your stock of mealtime, refrigerator, and fermented pickles, you’ll be grateful to have these pasteurized treats as the last soldiers standing.
Twice as Tasty
This is just a taste of the posts you’ll be reading all month as I share some of my favorite pickle variations. Next week, I’ll give you all the pickles you need to cleanse your palate while enjoying sushi. Later this month, I’ll give basic recipes for refrigerator pickles that let you combine produce from your garden or local farmer with your favorite herbs and spices. I’ll also explain how to preserve small jars of garden treats that can be used sparingly to enhance meals throughout the year without requiring you to reinforce your refrigerator shelves (although I’ll happily share how we beefed up ours to keep the weight of my pickle jars from making a gigantic mess).
This month also begins a new cycle of workshops, with one focused on—you guessed it—pickling. From July through September, you can bring me into your kitchen to teach you and your friends how to prepare pickles—mealtime, refrigerated, fermented, or processed. The summer workshop series also includes classes on making pestos from scratch and grilling vegetables for meals and long-term storage. You can learn more about these workshops and how participate here. Happy harvesting!