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Pick Apart a Pickle

By Barb Brenner, Certified Master Food Preserver

If you run out of topics to talk about this summer at a family gathering, I have one for you that will get anyone talking.  Talk about pickles.  Go ahead ask what their favorite pickle is, where they purchase it or how they make it.  Dill, sweet, or bread and butter? Is it fermented in a crock or canned in a jar?  Is it stored in the basement or kept in the refrigerator?  Is it a cucumber or green bean?  What? Aren’t all pickles made from cucumbers?  For sure, this topic will keep the conversation going for hours as the topic isn’t crisp, though we often want our pickles to be.

Let’s pick apart the topic of pickles.  Pickling is about producing an environment in which the food is preserved by acidity.  Which food are we talking about?  Referring to the recipes in the book “So Easy to Preserve” I can create a list of vegetables to pickle: asparagus, beets, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, green beans, green tomatoes, okra, onions, peppers and zucchini.  But the list doesn’t stop at the end of the alphabet for veggies, it continues at the letter “A” with fruits:  apples, cantaloupe, peaches, pears, plums and watermelon rinds.  Pickling isn’t just for cucumbers. 

Some folks will mention using a crock for making pickles.  Others will talk about vinegar.  How about pickles that go in the refrigerator or in the freezer?  So which is it?  How are pickles made?

An acidic environment inhibits the growth of bacteria that can cause spoilage.  You are either going to create an acidic environment by adding vinegar or through lacto-fermentation. 

Lacto-fermentation can be broken down into two similar but different approaches: dry salting or brine pickling.  Sauerkraut is an example of dry salting, where cabbage and salt are mixed together and a brine (salty solution) results.  With brine pickling you make brine by adding salt to water.  You then pour the brine over the vegetable such as when fermenting cucumbers (3/4 cup salt to one gallon of water).  Both approaches create brine, either from the salt pulling water out of the cabbage (dry salting) or by mixing salt into water and pouring over the vegetables (brine pickling).  Both of these methods are lacto-fermentation where the food creates its own acid environment as it ferments.  You can learn the basics of fermentation at the National Center for Home Food Preservation, click on the How Do I Ferment button.

Often you will hear someone say they make their pickles by adding vinegar.  This is another way of making pickles vs. by lacto-fermentation.  Vinegar is used when canning pickles or for making refrigerator or freezer pickles.  Choosing to can pickles in a boiling water bath or to make refrigerator/freezer pickles is a personal choice.  Do you have room to store the pickles in your refrigerator?  If you want to store them for a longer time, canning or freezing might be a better option. If the weather is too hot to fire up your stove and process pickles in a boiling water bath canner, you might prefer to make refrigerator or freezer pickles.  The decision is yours and there are recipes to try in all categories.  Follow a trusted recipe and don’t reduce the amount of vinegar in a recipe, especially if you intend to can it because Clostridium botulinum could grow causing botulism food poisoning in your canned pickles.

When canning or making refrigerator/freezer pickles, think of the vinegar as a replacement for the time needed for lacto-fermentation to occur.  It is a quicker way to make pickles, thus the term quick pickling, as the vinegar creates the acidic environment.  One of my favorite recipes for a refrigerator pickle is “Overnight Pickled Cauliflower” from the book “Pickled Pantry” by Andrea Chesman which uses red wine vinegar.  The red tint from the vinegar gives this pickle a beautiful rosy color. 

Pickles and pickling is a huge topic with many different paths one can follow.  Pick a vegetable or fruit, select lacto-fermentation or the addition of vinegar, find a trusted pickling recipe and give it a try. 

By the way, to quote Andrea Chesman:  “It is inevitable that if you make pickles, you will end up with refrigerator shelves bursting with half-filled jars of pickles”.  She is so right.  Pickles are addicting and you may end up with many jars in your refrigerator of all types of vegetables or fruits.  Currently, in my refrigerator I have half-filled jars of sauerkraut, asparagus kimchi, pickled asparagus, dilly beans and napa cabbage kimchi, all of which are made by “pickling”.  All I am missing is the basic cucumber dill pickle, but a new gardening season is here . . .

For more information on pickling refer to the National Center for Home Food Preservation.  If you prefer a hard copy reference, check out the book “So Easy to Preserve”.

Barb Brenner has been preserving food for years and is a Cornell Cooperative Extension Certified Master Food Preserver in Livingston County.  With thanks to Katherine J T Humphrey, Cornell Cooperative Extension Home Food Preservation Expert, for her review of this article.

Half-filled jars of “pickles” from the author’s refrigerator: sauerkraut, pickled asparagus, cabbage kimchi, dilly beans, asparagus kimchi.
Half-filled jars of “pickles” from the author’s refrigerator: sauerkraut, pickled asparagus, cabbage kimchi, dilly beans, asparagus kimchi.