Discovering the joy of pickling

By Ed Lotterman

Cub Foods is only 2 miles away from my house; Byerly’s about 3 1/2. I can walk to Tim & Tom’s Speedy Market.

So why make pickles? It’s simple: The making and the eating are enjoyable. For me, the making is so much more fun than the eating that I give away at least nine of every 10 jars I make.

But isn’t it work? Slaving over a hot stove like our grandmothers did?

Well, yes, at least to the extent that sewing quilt squares, throwing pots or making furniture are. However, our ancestors’ lives consisted of physical toil. Today most of us produce services, and many of us spend most of our time at a computer.

So physical activity like preserving foods can be deeply satisfying. At this time of year, drying, canning and freezing vegetables are all good options. But as a preservation method, pickling and fermenting offer sensory pleasures, especially of smell and sight, that the others do not.

So, what exactly does pickling involve? Well, there are two basic processes under this rubric. One is anaerobic lactic acid fermentation to make sauerkraut, kimchi and some heritage-process dill pickles. No vinegar is involved, only the vegetable, salt and perhaps some flavoring. It’s fun, but set that aside for now.

Most pickling, however, involves using a combination of vinegar and salt to preserve vegetables. The most common are cucumbers, but you can use the same basic gear, ingredients and process on a panoply of others. Those include beets, carrots, green and yellow beans, okra, cherry tomatoes or quartered romas, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, broccoli, jalapeños and other peppers, turnips, rutabagas, jicama, daikon radishes and more.

Start with beets and carrots rather than cucumbers: crisp cucumber pickles can be hard to home-produce. But home-pickled beets or other root vegetables are way ahead of commercial ones, both in texture and flavor. The beets found on salad bars taste of embalming fluid once you’re used to your own.

Experiment with flavor notes! Much of the charm in pickling is in introducing your own creativity. Vinegar, usually diluted, and salt are vital in the food chemistry. Sugar often is added to cut the acidic taste.

But then you create your own secret blend of spices and herbs. Celery seed, peppercorns and juniper berries are common. So are dill and garlic.

But a sprig of parsley adds visual appeal as well as taste. Ditto for a mint leaf or two, a sage or bay leaf or perhaps a chiffonaded (shredded or finely cut) basil leaf. Caraway seeds evoke ancestral memories for some. Cardamom and coriander, toasted or not, add other flavor notes. You can add zing with red pepper flakes and with seeds or strips of jalapenos or other peppers. A bit of stick cinnamon and a clove or two enchant some eaters but may turn away others.

For foods you plan to eat soon, heat processing isn’t needed: you can pickle in a non-reactive container (such as stainless steel, glass, pottery, or enamel-clad cookware) on your countertop or in your refrigerator.

But to store pickles for winter, the most practical is to use Mason jars and lids and process in a boiling water bath in a kettle or stock pot. Some recipes call for heating vegetables to a boil in the vinegar-water-salt-sugar liquid (proportions are crucial for safety) along with spices. Others let you put the flavor ingredients in jars, tuck vegetables on or around them, and then pour in hot liquid.

Recipes and instructions? A Ball Blue Book of any edition is reliable. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has an excellent “Complete Guide to Home Canning,” in downloadable PDFs. Get “Guide 1: Principles of Home Canning,” and “Guide 6: Preparing and Canning Fermented Foods and Pickled Vegetables,” to start. Until you have some experience, avoid recipes posted on the Internet if the vinegar-water-salt proportions vary drastically from old standards.

If you prefer training wheels for your first batch, seek a coach, perhaps on St. Anthony Park’s neighborhood listserv. Find a few other newbies and share a coach. Look at YouTube videos. Try small batches. Pickle two pints of baby carrots. Always let your product age a week to develop flavor.

But just do it. 

Ed Lotterman is a semi-retired economist and writer, an almost-fully retired farmer and a long-retired army reservist. His avocations include baking, welding and food preservation when not re-immersing himself in Brazilian culture.

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