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Quick Guide to Pickling

Pickling Basics

What mysterious forces turn a vegetable like a cucumber into a pickle? A pickle doesn’t taste like a fresh cucumber so what happens? In the simplest terms, the cucumber is preserved in and flavored by a vinegar solution to which salt, herbs, spices and sometimes sugar are added. Called a brine, this solution draws moisture out of the cucumber, and replaces it with the tang of the spice-infused vinegar. The vinegary brine creates a preservative acid environment and the spices infuse the pickle with their distinctive flavors. Sugar is sometimes added to sweeten the flavor of some pickles such as Bread ‘n’ Butters.

Spices for pickling

The salt and vinegar give the pickle its salty, tart flavor but the aromatic herbs and spices are what produce the hallmark flavors we associate with certain pickle recipes:

  • Turmeric: Adds an unmistakable earthy richness and produces the vivid yellow brine necessary in many finished pickle jars.
  • Garlic and onion: Add aromatic, flavor-enhancing depth to what would otherwise be bland, one-note cucumbers.
  • Chili peppers and black peppercorns: Add heat.
  • Dill: Gives dill pickles their signature taste.
  • Bay: Adds an aromatic, spicy-herbal flavor and is easily squeezed into a tightly packed jar.
  • Ginger: Lends a warm, mild spice note.
  • Clove, allspice and cinnamon: Assertive spice flavors that add aromatic bouquet and depth of flavor.
Pickling

Pickling methods

There are three main methods of pickling, from very easy and fast to more lengthier and more challenging:

Quick Pickles: Fresh cucumbers or vegetables are prepped, covered in brine and refrigerated. These pickles should be used within a few weeks.
Easy Quick Pickle Recipe

Quick-Process or Fresh-Packed Pickles: Fresh cucumbers or vegetables are prepped and packed fresh into jars which are filled with the heated brine. Then the jar is heat-processed to sterilize and seal. Alternatively, the fresh produce can be cooked in the heated brine and then added together to the jars before heat-processing.

Fermented or Crock Pickles: Fresh cucumbers or vegetables are prepped, submerged in a salty brine and left to ferment at room temperature. Lactobacillus bacteria grow and produce preservative lactic acid in the brine. Once fermentation is complete the pickles can be stored under refrigeration or they can be further processed in sterilized, heat-sealed jars following the steps in the Quick-Process or Fresh-Packed method. Sometimes a fresh, secondary brine or vinegar is used in the jar. Keep in mind that the heating will destroy the preservative probiotic lactobacillus bacteria, not only altering the flavor somewhat of the crock-fermented original but necessitating a safely heat-sterilized and sealed jar.

Regardless of the method used, the salt and vinegar add to the antimicrobial properties of some of the spices, precluding harmful bacteria from the process. This is why a "quick pickle" recipe can last under refrigeration for weeks, and a properly heat-sterilized and sealed jar of pickles can last for months on the pantry shelf.

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