Weekend Project: How to Make Indian Pickles or Achaar
Making your own will give you a reliable stash of summer flavors to pull from at your leisure.
Achaars, aka Indian pickles, are popular condiments in India. Achaar making is a popular activity during the hot summers, utilizing the bounty of peak produce. During my childhood, I would help my mother with the annual preparation, sneaking pieces of raw mango from the pile (I was too impatient to wait for the finished product). As an adult now living in the United States, I avoided making them and instead picked some up during trips home to India to visit family. My mom, mother-in-law, aunt, or friend were always happy to send us off with a bottle or two from their annual batch. But in the past few years, I’ve experimented with making small quantities of achaar here and there. While testing recipes for quick pickles to include in my cookbook Roti, I found it a calming and somewhat forgiving process.
Although it is not advisable to eat a jar-full of Indian achaar all at once, getting to know well-made achaars could very well make you a connoisseur. They aren’t difficult to make but like any good thing, require some time commitment. Once you learn how to make them, you will have a reliable stash of summer flavors to pull from at your leisure.
The word "achar" or "achaar" is erroneously defined in the Collins Dictionary as a pickle made with mangoes. This is an incomplete description -- which may explain why most people tend to get the concepts around Indian pickles wrong, too. Let us fix that by starting at the beginning.
Pickles represent preserved forms of a variety of fruits and vegetables that experience some degree of fermentation. They include a level of tanginess and can have a variety of whole spices. Most American, European, and Middle Eastern pickles are vegetables preserved in a liquid of brine and white or red vinegar, with a sprinkling of spices like dill, garlic, and pepper. Of the Asian pickles, East Asian pickles use a variety of pickling liquids varying from miso, sake, salt, soy sauce, ordinary vinegar, rice vinegar, and others. Marinated olives from many Mediterranean countries are perhaps the closest representative cousin to the Indian achaar.
South Asian achaars are common in countries like India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal -- since the spice palate includes familiar flavors. Indian achaars’ are predominantly oil-based preserves.
My 3+4 ‘Rule’ to Making Achaar:
There are hundreds of kinds of Indian achaars, and even then, every family personalizes the recipe to suit their preferences. The easiest way to understand how to make it is to know that every achaar requires three important ingredients and four critical steps. I’ve learned that apart from a few basic ground rules -- like making sure everything is sanitized and dry before filling and storing -- Indian achaars are far more adaptable than I previously believed.
What You Will Need To Get Started:
Pickling liquid is critical. Indian achaars are most often preserved in oil, and the choices vary: mustard, gingelly (sesame oil), castor, and peanut oil are the most common based on regional preferences. Olive oil is not considered traditional for obvious reasons. While some quick pickles include the use of lemon juice, vinegar, or a light tamarind paste, most are oil-based preparations. Not all achaars are spicy though. Sometimes, the pickling liquid may include a sugar syrup or a combination of oils and jaggery.
Fruits and Vegetables:
The raw materials that are to be pickled (or achaari-fied, a Hin-glish slang that only an Indian would chuckle at) are equally important as the pickling liquid. The water content of crisp and fresh, raw materials will determine the best pickling liquids to use. Unripened mango in all stages of its growth is particularly adaptable to a variety of pickling liquids, but if you are allergic, use something else like whole garlic cloves. Regional favorites that also do well in oil-based preparations include the unusual glue berry, star gooseberry, Indian gooseberry, cape gooseberry, and carandas plum, which you may be able to find if you have a particularly robust farmers’ market with ethnic fruits and vegetables. Achaars made from these fruits are particularly treasured and enjoyed alongside a serving or two of spiced pooris and savory stuffed paratha’s. Lemons, limes, and a variety of fresh hot peppers are also equally popular and can be made as a quick preparation or a marinated, fermented pickle. Other vegetables like cauliflower, carrots, turnip, ginger, fresh turmeric, and eggplant are great for quick aachars that are consumed on the same day.. Some parts of India even create an amazing variety of meat-based and seafood based achaars using hard boiled eggs, smoked pork, beef, chicken, fish, anchovies, and shrimp!
The best part about making aachar is that it can use as little as two or three whole spices or as many as half a dozen. This is where you can make it your own. Every recipe you find will offer suggestions, and once you get confident, you can begin to manipulate the spices to your own taste.
The four-part process:
The four-part process of making an aachar is simpler than you might think: prepping the materials, making the recipe, canning it, and then sunning the finished achaar as needed.
First, sterilize the jars and keep all the ingredients prepped and dry -- because even the smallest amount of unwelcomed water will cause it to spoil. As tempting as it is to can everything in as few jars as possible, I find that the smaller four- to six-ounce jars reduce the risk of spoilage. Your finished product can last for a few months unopened.
Below you will find one of my favorite aachar recipes, key lime aachar. I plan to make this if I happen to snag a bag of sweet and tart key limes from Melissa’s Produce on a grocery run. It will take you 15 minutes to cook, plus cooling time. Once cooled, set them out in the sun for several hours each day for one week.
I’ve used this recipe for unripe mangoes, garlic cloves, and Meyer lemons, but for other ingredients like cauliflower florets, carrot sticks, or diced beets, I’ve skipped the canning process and tossed them in the same spices for a quick achaar.
Uses: With Khitchidi, risotto, on a fruit platter, tapas spread, etc.
You will need:
- 2-3 lb key limes
- ⅔ cup mustard oil
- 4 tbsp. store-bought mustard halves (not mustard powder)
- 3 tbsp. store-bought fenugreek halves
- 2 tbsp. cayenne pepper powder, to taste
- 2 tsp. asafetida powder
- 2 tsp. salt (optional)
- Wash and air dry the key limes for 2-3 hours. Once completely dry, cut them into eighths and set aside in a bowl, along with its juices.
- Heat the oil in a large, wide-mouth saucepan on medium-high until it is hot but not smoking. Reduce the heat to low and slowly add all the spices and salt (if using). Stir to distribute the heat evenly for no more than 2 minutes. Add the key limes with their juices. Stir until the limes are coated in the spices.
- Increase the heat to medium and let this cook for 4-5 minutes until limes are softened. The key limes will give off some of their juice, this is normal.
- Turn off the heat and cover with a paper towel for 10 minutes to catch any condensation. Fill the dry glass jars with the finished pickle, leaving at least a quarter of an inch below the rim of the jar. Divide up any of the liquid among the jars, close the lid, and place in a boiling hot water-bath for canning for 10-15 minutes.
- Remove the jars from the hot water bath and allow them to fully cool for 10 or more hours.
- Once cooled, place the jars outside under the sun for several hours a day for a week (in 75°F or higher dry heat). If it is humid outside, sun the jars indoors on a window sill. Store in a cool dry place.