Ingredients for a vinegar pickle: red onions, jalapeño, garlic, salt,
sugar, water, vinegar.
By Travis Hartman
The pickle has a proud and multifaceted heritage. Pickling is a great tradition spanning millennia. Pickling preserves food, enhances taste and also aids nutrition and digestion.
Within the realm of pickles and pickling there exists a distinct and often misunderstood divide. Do you find yourself mystified about the secrets that lurk under the brine? Then come along and allow me to submerge you in the details.
There are many types of pickles. There also exists a great split in the way they are created. One pickle is made slowly; the other, quickly. One type of pickle uses the acid in the brine, while the other creates its own. Making both types of pickles takes roughly the same amount of work.
The quick version is as simple as it gets: Mix water and vinegar. Dissolve salt and sugar in the vinegar/water mixture. Heat it up, let it cool and pour over vegetables in a jar. The acetic acid in the vinegar (it needs to be at 5% or more) rids the brine of any micro-organisms and preserves the vegetable by preventing spoilage. There you have a pickle, quickly.
The other version has a recipe that is actually even simpler than that. The technique is a bit more nuanced but all you really need is water and salt. Mix the two to make a brine, pour over vegetables and wait three to five days. This brine is the perfect environment to stave off bad bacteria (the kind that makes food rot) and allows good bacteria to flourish (the kind that makes food taste good). The good bacteria is called Lactobacillus, and over time will convert some of the sugars in the vegetable to acid. This is what we want. This is the beginning of the pickle action we’re looking for.
The acid provides the resounding sour flavors and keeps the food safe by stopping the bad bacteria from taking root. After five days or so, taste a little of your newfound treasure and, if it is as sour as you want it, throw it in the fridge to stop the growth and keep it where it’s at.
Now let’s be clear—not all pickles are fermented, and not all fermented things are pickles. Pickling does more than make food taste good; the process of pickling creates food that will stay fresh in your fridge for several months. The art of pickling is a magical science—you can do it reliably over and over again. And homemade pickles are versatile! Put them on a charcuterie board! Top your foods with them! Use your homemade pickled veggies to balance rich meals and impress your friends and neighbors. They’ll never know how easy the veggies are to pickle. So quick. So tasty. So good.
When you’re really ready to step your pickle game up a notch, try your hand at fermentation. It’s arguably easier than a quick pickle, but requires patience. This is the same process used to create yogurt, cheese, beer, wine and bread (sourdough, specifically), so you are in good company.
There is a wide world of vegetables the can be pickled. Fermenting vegetables will make pickles that will not only impress your friends and neighbors, dear reader, but through the course of lacto-fermentation, I dare say you may breach the realm of also impressing the toughest customer out there—yourself.
RECIPE: Quick pickle brine
1 cup vinegar (white, rice, apple cider)
1 cup water
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp sugar
Mix, heat, let cool and then pour over veg packed into a (very clean) ball jar.
Red onions are a great first attempt. Slice thin and pack with garlic and jalapeño for a Mexican twist. Any veg will work, though some dense varieties like carrots should be peeled and sliced into batons for maximum flavor penetration. Trim ends off green beans. And, of course, the cucumber is welcome here, too. Use fresh herbs to punctuate and refine flavors. Place in fridge and chill for around two days for flavor to emerge. Will keep for two months or more.
Recipe: Fermentation brine
Dissolve 1 tbsp kosher salt per cup of filtered water. (Chlorine may mess with the ferment)
Pour over fresh sliced veg in (very clean) glass jar. *It is very important that all vegetable matter is submerged or it may grow mold that you definitely do not want.*
Screw on lid (loosely, so eventual gas can escape) and place in a warm spot that is between 65–75 degrees. Temperature will affect the growth of the good bacteria, and within a few days you should see bubbles, which means they are at work!
After a few days, inspect your jar. All still under the brine? Bubbling and starting to smell sour like a pickle should? Fish one out and take a bite and see if it meets your approval. Each jar will be different based on what’s in it, the temperature and a million other things, but if it tastes nice then throw it in the fridge, which will basically stop the fermentation—and your pickles will be preserved until you get to the bottom of the jar.
For further reading on fermentation, find The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz, a bright orange book often on sale at the Coop. It is a delightful tome of encyclopedic fermentation knowledge.
Travis Hartman has been a member of the Park Slope Food Coop since 2010. His favorite part about the Coop is the wide variety of messages heard over the PA while shopping.