Something about summer picnics and cookouts makes us crave crisp, vinegary pickles. Whether you’re putting up a bumper crop or just looking for a delicious project, we’ve got you covered! We asked expert Karen Solomon, author of the book Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It and the new Asian Pickles, for her top tips for pickling at home. Learn them here, then see our Guide to Preserving for more!
“Pickles are actually my favorite thing to make,” says Karen. “I like things that are cold and crisp — I love acidity — and pickles heighten the sensation and flavors of anything you eat. Plus, they’re very easy to put together. When I teach a class, people always think pickling involves boiling jars and waiting six months. I love that I can show people how to make a pickle in 10 minutes that they can eat in 30 minutes. I eat them everyday!”
Start simple, with perfect produce. “I’m always experimenting and coming up with new flavors, but the things I come back to again and again are the simplest: kosher dills, sauerkraut, and strawberry and blueberry jam.” Never pickle with produce of quality that you wouldn’t eat out of hand.
Pickle all year long. In the summer, Karen loves pickling cucumbers, green tomatoes and peppers, but her favorite pickles actually start with wintry ingredients, like cauliflower, cabbage and daikon radishes. “I love that they’re easy and seasonally unsensitive.”
Really scrub or trim your cucumbers to avoid mushy pickles. The blossom end of small pickling cukes contains an enzyme that will make your vegetables soften in the brine. Use a green kitchen scrubber to remove any trace of the tip, and snip away the stem. Also, don’t cook them! “If you boil cucumbers they will get soft and won’t stay crisp,” says Karen. “Quick, refrigerator pickles are a great way to go — they’re likely to be a lot crisper because they haven’t had heat on them.”
Go small batch. People used to put up fruits and vegetables by the bushel to take advantage of the season’s produce, which could be sitting on a shelf for a year. These days, we preserve for flavor and pleasure, not out of necessity. That means you can work with just a few jars at a time and do away with the canning and process altogether, if you like.
Yes, you can pickle fruits! Karen loves pickling grapes and cherries. Her advice: Use less vinegar when pickling fruits than vegetables, and use a lighter one, such as apple cider vinegar. A sweeter brine brings out the best flavor in the fruit. Firmer fruits like grapes and pineapple will hold up well, as well as underripe green fruits, while soft, ripe berries won’t last as long. See Karen’s recipe for green strawberry salsa here.
Use a bit of turmeric when pickling cauliflower. A half-teaspoon or so of ground turmeric mixed into the brine per pint jar will turn the vegetable a lovely yellow and help disguise discoloration.
Toast spices before adding them to a brine to really bring out their flavor. This is particularly important with Indian spices like coriander seed, whole fenugreek, and cumin seed, but also with chile flakes and peppercorns.
Don’t forget about citrus. A great pickle needs acid, but it needn’t all come from a vinegar bottle. Lemon juice and lime juice are astringent enough for quick pickles. Consider adding thinly sliced citrus rounds to beets, asparagus, green beans, carrots, berries, stone fruit or other vegetables and fruits.
Experiment. Classic spices are dill seed, celery seed, yellow and brown mustard seeds, garlic, bay leaves and whole black peppercorns. Consider also fresh ginger, green onion, shallots, dried chile peppers, fresh and dried herbs, Sichuan peppercorns, star anise and cinnamon sticks. “I’m a big fan of garlic, and I like caraway seed in my fermented pickles,” says Karen. “And I always need salt.”
Enjoy your handiwork! Besides putting homemade pickles on sandwiches, Karen recommends chopping them and adding them to potato salad, or sprinkling them on top of a green salad. She also adds them to Asian rice bowls, pan sauces, stir-frys, soups and savory pancakes.