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How to Pickle Your Summer Vegetables

By:  Julie Besonen Jul 22, 2013
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Pickled vegetables in mason jars.
Nash Photos

Pickles have been popular since the days of Cleopatra but now they’re hotter than ever. Portlandia's “We can pickle that!” jokes aside, the briny, artisanal treatment of a variety of produce have made pickled veggies the go-to, crunchy snack of the moment.

Bringing a Trend Home

New York City is pickle central thanks to a number of small-batch manufacturers like Brooklyn Brine, McClure’s, Ess-a-Pickle, Wheelhouse and Rick’s Picks, all of which honor the zesty classics but also play around by adding flourishes like chipotle peppers, wasabi or tangerine. Across the country, Phickles Pickles in Athens, Ga.; Cherith Valley Gardens in Fort Worth, Texas; and Happy Girl Kitchen Co. in Pacific Grove, Calif. are capturing their own regional flavors—and the hearts of pickle lovers.

In turn, the pickling revival has led people to realize it’s possible to do at home. It’s also economical. But if you didn’t learn the tricks of canning and preserving from your granny, where do you start?

“Take a class or buy a cookbook,” advises Lyn Deardorff of Preserving Now in Atlanta. “You need to know the safeguards.” Deardorff teaches several hands-on classes a month in the Atlanta area and reports that her students are a mix of females and males, adults of a “certain age” and young hipsters. She says the D-I-Y passion for pickling makes sense in light of more people seeking out local, healthy, sustainable and organic ingredients, planting gardens, shopping at farmers’ markets and joining CSAs and co-ops.

“A generation ago, pickling was almost a lost art — kind of like knitting,” Deardorff says. “Half of my students come because they don’t know anything about pickling and the others are scared because they don’t want to kill someone."

The correct amounts of vinegar, salt, sugar, spices and water allow fresh produce to retain its flavor, vitamins, color and texture through the winter, much longer than it would in the freezer. The preservation process prevents the growth of undesirable bacteria, molds and yeast. If you are a more advanced pickler, here is a recipe from Lyn Deardorff to use for dilly green beans (it can also be used for carrots, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower or broccoli if you prefer).

Pickling Protection Basics

Considering safety first, here are some tips from the USDA.

  • Trim small diseased lesions or spots from food. If you’re pickling cucumbers, be sure to remove and discard a 1/16th-inch slice from the blossom end. Blossoms may contain an enzyme that causes excessive softening of the vegetable.
  • Do not alter vinegar, food or water proportions in a recipe or use a vinegar with unknown acidity. (The vinegar should be 5 percent acidity so be sure to check the label.) There must be a minimum, uniform level of acid throughout the mixed product to prevent the growth of botulinum bacteria.
  • Standard canning jars and self-sealing lids are recommended.
  • Do not retighten lids after processing jars. As jars cool, the contents in the jar contract, pulling the self-sealing lid firmly against the jar to form a high vacuum.

Pickling Year Round

Andrea Chesman’s cookbook, The Pickled Pantry: From Apples to Zucchini, offers 150 different recipes for pickles, relishes and chutneys, as well as ways to incorporate them into meals. So far this year, the Vermont-based author has pickled fiddlehead ferns, ramps and asparagus from her garden. Soon she’ll put up cucumber pickles, tomatoes, eggplant, beans, rhubarb and carrots.

Pickling

All winter long Chesman will pickle cabbage, using it to make sauerkraut and kimchi. If she ends up with too much of either, she has ways to keep it from going to waste – her cookbook features recipes for Asian-style noodle soup with kimchi and tofu, classic roast pork with sauerkraut and even German chocolate sauerkraut cake.

She attributes part of the pickle renaissance to a health-oriented interest in natural fermenting. “Research indicates fermented foods are good for the gut,” she says. “Why take a probiotic in pill form when you can eat it in kimchi?”

While Chesman could never forgo her kimchi and sauerkraut, she confesses that the kosher dill pickle gives her the most pleasure. “It’s crunchy, it’s salty, it’s garlicky, it’s refreshing,” she rhapsodizes. In her eyes, pickles are not just any old sidekick on a plate. “I don't think a tuna-fish sandwich is worth doing without a pickle on it — it adds so much life.”

For the novice who wants to make quick, half-sour dill pickles, Chesman shares her can’t-miss recipe here. “I've never, ever had it fail,” she says. “For the cost of a couple of cucumbers and some dill, within three to five days you’ll have a jar of pickles for a lot less than $5.”