Pickling 101

by Mariana Rufin

Almost every culture has its own version of pickles or a fermentation method for preserving fresh ingredients, and almost every person has an opinion on how they like their pickles and the best types of pickled foods. Today, many may find it unnecessary to preserve their food through pickling or other fermentation methods, yet the taste of briny, salty, spicy pickled foods remains well-liked and relevant in food culture.

At a glance, pickling is the process of preserving food in an acid solution like vinegar, or in a salt solution, called a brine. So, how exactly is it that the process of pickling is able to preserve food for months and even years on end without spoilage? Chemical pickling, which is almost always used for the types of pickles seen in grocery stores in the United States, utilizes a pickling agent consisting of salt, vinegar, sugar, and water, which is then boiled so that the food becomes saturated with the pickling agent. For some other types of foods, such as sausages and other meat products, eggs, and sometimes vegetables, the process of fermentation pickling is employed. Fermentation pickling involves microorganisms that lower the pH of the food to such a point that bacteria will not grow. However, unlike chemical pickling, fermented or brined products need to cure for several weeks before they are ready for consumption, because the production of lactic acid is one of the main components of this process.

The Ultimate Recipe for Garden Variety Pickled Vegetables 

These pickles are crisp, refreshing, and sit in a brine with plenty of spices and herbs to give them a breadth of flavor. This recipe can be adapted to whatever produce is in season at the moment, for example, springtime vegetables like asparagus, carrots, and green beans. This recipe is adapted from Food & Wine’s recipe for “Crisp Pickled Vegetables” and yields one large jar of pickles. 

Ingredients: 

  • 2-3 Persian cucumbers, or another type of medium/small sized cucumber, ends trimmed
  • 15-20 green beans (number of beans does not have to be precise but is a rough estimate of the ideal amount for this recipe) 
  • 1 large carrot, ends trimmed flat and cut lengthwise into pieces 1-2 inches thick 
  • 1 ½ cups white vinegar
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp Kosher salt 
  • whole black peppercorns, add to taste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 8 garlic cloves, smashed
  • red pepper flakes (leave out for non-spicy pickles) 

Directions: 

  1. Thoroughly rinse the vegetables before cutting into appropriately sized pieces. 
  2. In a large jar or multiple jars, distribute the vegetable pieces evenly. 
  3. In a saucepan, add the vinegar, sugar, salt, peppercorns, garlic, bay leaf, and red pepper flakes. Add 1 ½ cups of water, and bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. 
  4. Add the mixture to the jars of vegetables, making sure all parts of the vegetables are completely submerged.
  5. Wait until jars come to room temperature, then seal and refrigerate for 2-3 days before consumption for best flavor. 

Tip: To ensure that your jars are bacteria proof, place them briefly in boiling water before use.

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