As I mentioned while describing the pros and cons of pickling, the process, whether using vinegar or salt brine, safely preserves low-acid foods and can be varied to incorporate your favorite flavors and the size of your harvest. Pickling is a preservation technique but not a storage one; you need to pair it with canning or refrigerating. Some tips and tricks will help you successfully make pickles.
Most pickles preserve produce that’s naturally low in acid, which confusingly means it has a high pH. The magic number is pH 4.6: you can pickle almost anything if you add enough acid to drop the pH to 4.6 or lower.
There are two ways to add that acid. Vinegar is acetic acid; pour it in a produce-filled jar, and it immediately goes to work pickling and preserving. Fermenting backs that process up a step, using salt to convert the natural healthy bacteria in the produce into lactic acid and lower the pH to safe levels. When the conversion is complete, the food is pickled and preserved.
Both acidification techniques have their pluses and minuses. Tangy vinegar-based pickles can rapidly infuse flavor and be ready within a few hours or last for months if properly stored. But such variability has its downside: quick pickles can have a sharp flavor, and ones that are canned for long-term storage can lose their crispness as they sit in a boiling water bath. Sour fermented pickles win the crispness contest and come packed with probiotic benefits, but the salt brine takes time to work its magic and the finished jars can quickly fill your fridge.
Every vegetable, fruit, and even protein you might want to pickle has a different natural pH. This means that for each food you pickle, you need a different minimum amount of vinegar or salt in the jar to lower the overall pH to at least 4.6. Without that acidity, even a sealed or refrigerated jar can let undesirable bacteria grow. Canning recipes have been calculated to ensure there is enough acidity to kill unwanted bacteria; if you plan to can your pickles, you must follow the recipe precisely, especially when it comes to the main ingredients, vinegar, and any water. Fermenting recipes can be a bit less precise, but good ones are also calculated to ensure successful and safe fermentation; avoid altering the main ingredients, salt, and any water.
What You Can Save
Almost any low-acid food, and many naturally acidic ones, can be pickled. You’ll find recipes for a range of produce that I pickle in vinegar or ferment with salt here on the blog:
- Vinegar-based pickles: asparagus, beets, cucumbers, garlic, ginger, green tomatoes, nasturtium seeds, snap beans, summer squash, watermelon
- Fermented pickles: cabbage, carrots, cucumbers
But these are just the beginning: when my new cookbook on pickling is released this fall, you’ll discover 125 recipes that pickle in vinegar or salt brine everything from apples to zucchini, as well as vinegar-spiked or fermented sauces, beverages, and even seafood.
The Tools You Need
At the most basic, you need 3 things to create a pickle: a main ingredient (usually a vegetable or fruit), vinegar or salt, and water. Beyond that, any additional tools depend on whether and how you’re going to store the pickle. Thinly sliced quick pickles need nothing beyond the basics and a dish for serving. Vinegar-infused pickles may just need a nonreactive container with an airtight lid, if they’re going straight into the fridge, or all of the accoutrements of canning.
Fermented pickles need a fermenting vessel and storage jar, but a few additional tools can make the process more trouble-free:
- Jars: Pickles can be fermented in quart, half-gallon, and larger jars or crocks. Jars and other containers that once held commercially processed pickles can be used for quick or refrigerator pickles or to store ferments but can’t take the high heat of home canning; you’ll need mason jars if you plan to process your pickles.
- Lids: Fermenting can be done without a lid, but you’ll get the best results if you use an airlock one that releases carbon dioxide and prevents pests and oxygen from entering the jar; the latest crocks have waterlock lids with the same benefits. When you’re ready to store your pickles, choose a nonreactive lid made of stainless steel, food-grade plastic, silicone, or unleaded glass so that the lid material doesn’t interact with the acidic brine and rust.
- Weights: Fermented pickles need to stay submerged. This goal can be achieved with a range of on-hand options: a cabbage leaf, a piece of cheesecloth, a nonreactive lid small enough to fit inside the jar, a resealable bag or jar of brine. Specialized glass weights that fit crocks or canning jars are a worthwhile investment if you become a fermentation fiend.
Smart Processing Tips
Pickles may be ready to eat within hours (in the case of quick pickles) to weeks (in the case of fermented ones. How long you can keep them around also varies widely: some quick pickles are only good for a day or two, fridge and fully fermented pickles will keep weeks to months, and canned pickles can last a year. A few other general tricks can help when pickling food:
- Keep it fresh. The ideal path for a pickle is direct from garden or farmer, to kitchen, to jar or crock. Once a fruit or vegetable becomes soft, it won’t become crisp and firm again.
- Use the best. Unblemished produce without signs of spoilage produces the crispest, tastiest pickles. When fermenting, healthy fresh produce has the best chance of keeping spoilage microbes at bay.
- Store smartly. Unless they’re sealed in a boiling water bath, pickles need to be refrigerated. Canned pickles should be stored in a cool, dark, dry place without the jar rings; these can hold food particles and rust). During fermentation, pickles also need to be in a cool, dark space.
- Be patient. Fermentation takes time; keep an eye on what’s happening, but don’t be concerned if changes happen more slowly than you expect. Vinegar-preserved pickles may also need time: most refrigerated pickles taste best if they sit for at least 2 days, and processed pickles generally want to be stored a few weeks before they’re open so that they fully develop their flavor.
Twice as Tasty
When my book, The Complete Guide to Pickling: Pickle and Ferment Everything Your Market or Garden Has to Offer, is released this fall, you’ll discover 125 recipes that preserve your harvest. Besides chapters on quick, fresh (refrigerated and canned), and fermented pickles, I’ve created recipes for salsas, chutneys, relishes, and other sauces. You can make sweet, fruity pickles or tangy, savory ones. You can even pickle fish and eggs and whip up vinegar-based or quickly fermented beverages.
The book expands on a few recipes that are already on the blog. My garden is just about to hit its pickling stride; so far, I’ve only pickled asparagus, radishes, snap peas, and cherries from this year’s harvest. But in the next few weeks I’ll be putting up cucumbers and zucchini, beans and beets, garlic and cabbage, and just before I put the garden to bed, carrots and green tomatoes.
This post wraps up this month’s Prepare to Preserve series, inspired by a virtual workshop I gave earlier this month as part of Free the Seeds skill-building sessions. You can learn more about and watch a recording of that presentation here. All of the bonus information is in these posts:
- Prepare to Preserve
- Quick Food Preservation (dry storage, freezing, and refrigerating)
- Prepare to Dehydrate
- Prepare to Can
- Prepare to Pickle
Free the Seeds is offer two more live presentations this fall; you can learn more about them here. See you next week to start a new round of food fun here on Twice as Tasty.
Like what you’ve learned? To learn more in a Twice as Tasty workshop—in your own kitchen, among friends, and with my personal help—click here. If you’re not yet a Twice as Tasty subscriber, get newsletters delivered straight to your inbox by clicking here.