Long before refrigeration, pickling was the way to preserve food and keep it flavorful. Here’s how to pickle pretty much anything.
As a collector of old cookbooks, I’m always interested to read the recipes that call for “preserved [insert a food here]”. While today we think of “preserves” as referring only to fruit, back before refrigeration was common, a “preserve” could mean anything canned or jarred in a way that would keep it edible for a long time. Turns out that along with sugaring (as in jams and jellies), salting, fermenting, and pickling are all methods of preserving food.
While I’m a fan of all of these food preservation methods (bacon and beer being my favorites in the salting and fermenting categories), I’ve discovered a particular affection for pickling.
What’s a Pickle?
For us Americans “a” pickle is a word generally associated with a cucumber packed in brine. But pickling, the method, has be a common common way to preserve all kinds of food — eggs, cabbage, fish, peppers, fruit, you name it — for at least 5,000 years. In fact, there’s very little you can’t pickle, and it comes to low acid foods, there’s no easier way to do it.
More importantly, it doesn’t have to taste like vinegar or salt, the flavors we most often associate with a lot of mass-market pickling. Depending on the ingredients you use, pickled food can taste pretty much like the fresh versions, or they can be spicy, sweet, savory, funky, or any combination of thereof. That’s why I’ve come to like this preservation method so much.
The Basic Recipe
To pickle something you need just a few basic ingredients: water, salt and vinegar. The proportions of these will determine the texture and flavor of the resulting food. Here are the two basic pickling mixtures:
High Acid Pickling Mixture
- 2 cups vinegar
- 2 tablespoons salt
Low Acid Pickling Mixture
- 1 cup vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 1/4 cup salt
You can scale these recipes up or down as needed, just make sure to keep the proportions of vinegar, salt and water the same.
Also, I generally use white vinegar, but you can use red, wine, rice or any other vinegar based on the flavor you’re looking for. For the salt, I like kosher or pickling salt, but you can use plain old table salt as long as it’s not iodized (which will change the color of the food).
- Place your ingredients in a pot, heat until salt is dissolved. (That’s it.)
Depending on the food, you can use the pickling brine hot or cold. Hot will soften the food, cold will keep it firm or crisper. Either way, after putting your food in the jar, make sure to remove any trapped air and completely top the jar with your brine before sealing.
The difference between the mixtures
The basic purpose of pickling is to raise the acidity to a level here most bacteria can no longer survive. The high acid version will preserve food at room temperature with no extra steps like heating in a water bath. Because of the higher acidity, however, it will change the flavor and produce a softer texture food.
The lower acid version will keep the food’s texture and flavor closer to what it was fresh, but you’ll need to either process the jarred food in a water bath or keep it in the refrigerator to prevent it from spoiling too quickly.
Generally speaking, the high acid mixture is good for those foods you want with strong, vinegar-driven flavors (think tangy, spicy or savory peppers and dill pickles), while the low acid is good for foods where you want the food, spices and/or fermented flavors to dominate instead of the vinegar (think fruity, sweet or funky relishes).
Go ahead, pickle something!
You can pickle almost anything, so go ahead and experiment with different foods or try a few simple recipes. It’s a great way to preserve extra food to keep it from going to waste, and, more often than not, the results will be surprisingly tasty!
Here are a couple of recipes I use regularly. One is for dill pickles, the other is for spicy Italian-style peppers.