Aren’t pickles fun? They’re such a great way to preserve the harvest, plus they’re a place to experiment with flavor combinations. Not to mention, pickles of all kinds make great snacks and accompaniments to meals.
Here we explore two very different ways to turn vegetables into pickles: lacto-fermentation and vinegar pickling (with a hot-water bath to preserve them). We don’t stop with vegetables though, read on to discover some of the unconventional morsels we like to throw in the pickle jar.
What is pickling?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a pickle is “an article of food that has been preserved in brine or in vinegar; specifically : a cucumber that has been so preserved.” The origin of the word pickle is a little murky. In fact, it’s been postulated that it may be the last name of medieval Dutch fisherman who came up with the process. But pickling has been around much longer than that. According to an article from PBS, people were pickling cucumbers in the Tigris Valley in 2030 BC! Wherever there are seasons of bounty and of lean times, human beings have made pickles to help get them through.
What gets pickled?
Vegetables are by no means the only foods that get the pickle treatment. However, cucumber pickles and sauerkraut (lacto-fermented cabbage) may be the most popular. Both limes and green mangos are very common fruit pickles in India. Meat can be pickled too. For example, corned beef, pickled pig’s feet, and herring in wine sauce are examples of this. Even whole, hard-boiled eggs can find themselves floating in brine. Feta is a common kind of cheese that gets pickled in its own tangy whey, plus generous salt.
A few of our favorite unconventional pickle ingredients: oxeye daisy buds and flowers, milkweed pods, garlic scapes, hemlock tips, daylily buds, basswood leaves, and wild mushrooms.
Lacto-fermentation vs. vinegar pickling
Using vinegar or salty brine are two of the most common ways to pickle. In the case of salty brine, beneficial bacteria eat the sugars in the vegetables on their way to becoming pickles. As a result, lactic acid is released, turning the saltwater into an acidic solution; this process is called lacto-fermentation. For vinegar pickles, salt is almost always added too. So, what’s the difference between these two sour-salty solutions?
The presence of probiotics, or beneficial bacteria, is the main difference between lacto-fermentation and vinegar pickling. Lacto-fermented pickles are cultured, and full of priobiotics. Additionally, sealing vinegar pickles in a hot water bath is very common. When we do this, we cook both the pickles and the brine. As a result, we can store the pickles at room temperature in their sealed jars for a long time without spoiling. Check out our infographic below for a comparison of some of the pros and cons of these two ways to pickle.
Great pickle recipes
Pickle diversity is as vast as human culture. Here are two basic recipes to get started, from two awesome books on food preservation. There are tons of other pickling books out there. We especially encourage you to explore recipes for pickles and preserves from India, Ukraine, Germany and Japan. Those are among the pickle loving cultures who have perfected many piquant delicacies.
Sour Beets (lacto-fermented)
(From “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Elix Katz)
Timeframe: 1 to 4 weeks
Ingredients (for 1/2 gallon):
- 5 pounds beets
- 3 Tablespoons salt
- 1 Tablespoon caraway seeds
- Grate the beets, coarsely or finely based on your preference
- Sprinkle the grated beets with salt as you go
- Add the caraway seeds and stir to incorporate
- Place the juicy, salt, caraway-y beets into a crock, food-grade plastic bucket, or large glass jar, pack in tightly to squeeze juice from the beets and press out any air bubbles
- Place a weight atop the beets and make sure all of them are submerged
- Cover with a cloth to exclude bugs
- Check after a few days, it will get more sour over time and be “done” in 1-4 weeks depending on temperatures
- When you deem it done, pack into clean jars and store in the refrigerator.
(From “Putting Food By” by Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg, and Beatrice Vaughan)
Ingredients (for 7 pint jars):
- 4 pounds whole green beans
- 1 1/2 crushed, dried red pepper
- 7 fresh dill heads or 3 1/2 teaspoons dried dill seed
- 7 cloves of fresh garlic, peeled
- 5 cups vinegar
- 5 cups water
- 1 cup minus 1 Tablespoon salt (“pickling,” Kosher, or sea salt, not iodized table salt)
- Sanitize your jars by steaming, boiling, or in a dishwasher
- Fill clean, still-warm jars to the shoulder with clean, trimmed green beans
- In each jar, place 1 dill head or 1/2 tsp dill seed, 1 garlic clove, and 1/4 tsp crushed pepper
- Heat together the water, salt and vinegar to a boil
- Pour brine over the beans, filling each jar 1/2 inch from the top
- Process in a hot water bath canner for 10 minutes after water returns to a simmer
- Remove and let cool, then double-check seals