To the cucumber and beyond: How to pickle your way to delicious vegetables
Pickling is a great way to get your produce ready for winter. Learn how it's done.
Our Israeli Kitchen chefs have pickled enough produce to make Peter Piper proud. From cherries to beets to radishes to capers, our culinary experts have proven that there's much more to pickling than the tried-and-true cucumber.
But what is pickling, exactly? How many different kinds of vegetables can, and should, be pickled? Is it hard? How long does it take? What recipes do pickled foods work best in? Will they taste good after they've been pickled?
So much uncertainty for such a simple and rewarding activity! But not to worry: Here are seven of your most burning questions about pickling, followed by our expert-backed answers. Call it a pickling primer. (In addition to pickling, we're also really good at alliterations.)
1. What is pickling?
"Pickle" is a word translated from the Dutch "pekel," which means "brine." And true to its name, pickling is basically immersing vegetables in a brine of vinegar, salt and spices in order to extend their shelf life. The types of spices, how much salt (or sugar) and what kind of vinegar you use can vary according to your tastes, preferences and the type of food you're pickling. For pickling capers, for instance, Israeli chef Miriam Kresh recommends a brine of apple cider vinegar, salt and water. On the other hand, when Kresh pickles cherries, she recommends sugar instead of salt, because it complements the cherries. Adding spices isn't necessary for pickling, but it sure doesn't hurt.
2. Why pickle?
As with capers, sometimes pickling is the only way to eat a particular food. It's more tender and seems to blend with the flavors of the brine naturally. Cucumbers, as you know, are excellent raw, but they also transform seamlessly into everyone's favorite sandwich topper and one of the most popular jarred food products – and all it takes is giving them a little bath. Pickled vegetables are quite common in Mediterranean cooking, which is why you see so many foods featuring pickled vegetables in our Israeli Kitchen recipe collection. So if that's the kind of food you prefer, chances are you'll want to adopt pickling as your favorite way to eat your veggies. Think you don't like radishes? Try pickling them!
3. Is pickling difficult?
Difficulty is in the eye of the doer, but if you're forcing us to answer this objectively, we submit a resounding "no." If you know how to read a recipe and you're willing to play a little with flavor, spices, sweetness and saltiness, and maybe experiment with foods you're not sure you'd like in pickled form, then you'll find that pickling is not only easy, it's also loads of fun!
4. What's the difference between canned pickling and quick pickling?
The two big differences are shelf life and time, and they are mutually exclusive. If you go the quick-pickle route, you save time at the beginning of the process, and the taste is essentially the same, but your pickles won't last as long as they would with the canning option. We're talking four or five hours for quick pickling and up to a month (or more) for canning. It all depends on how long you want to keep your pickles, how many people in your household will eat them, and what kind of pickles you want to make. "If you're a fan of anything pickled, quick pickles are a great way to experiment without the risk or intimidation of home canning," says Jerry James Stone, a food blogger and vegetarian chef who contributes recipes to our Israeli Kitchen. "Another benefit of quick pickles is that they maintain more of the produce's original freshness from not being over-boiled."
5. What tools and ingredients do I need?
Canning jars are best, but you can use any jar that seals tightly. You'll also need vinegar, salt, sugar and any spices you'd like to taste repeatedly each time you reach into your jar for another pickle. As far as the type of vinegar, we recommend apple cider vinegar for anything sweet. You'll also need patience, but that's not sold in stores. At least not last time we checked.
6. What kinds of foods are best for pickling?
Sturdy vegetables with tough skin, like cucumbers and peppers, are prime pickling produce. But that's not a hard-and-fast rule; smaller, softer foods like capers and olives also pickle pleasantly. And the process isn't just reserved for the savory-minded among us; it is also possible, and often ideal, to home-pickle fruits like grapes, pears, figs and pineapple. So don't throw away that summer swag just yet!
The best peppers to use for pickling are fresh from the farmers market. (Photo: Jerry James Stone)
7. How can pickling enhance recipes?
Pickled vegetables can be an excellent theme for your next appetizer plate. Serve them with cheese and crackers for a finger-food crowd-pleaser. You can also turn the traditional veggie platter on its head by pickling carrots and celery. Who needs ranch dressing, anyway?
And just when you thought you'd conquered the cocktail: Why not pickle a veggie or two for your next Bloody Mary? Stone explains it all in a video on how to use pickling to enhance cocktails.
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