Weekend Project: The Laziest Guide to Making Pickles
Seriously, all you need is salt and time.
Salt and time. You probably have plenty of both these days, and that’s all you need to turn any vegetable into a pickle. Maybe you’re looking for ways to transform familiar ingredients into the strong flavors created by lactic acid fermentation and vinegar-brined pickles. These age-old methods of preservation may feel intimidating to the uninitiated — but fear not! These two super-simple pickling methods create versatile condiments that will level-up your ho-hum home-cooked meals.
Sturdy vegetables fermented in a salt brine turn sour and slightly funky, like a kosher dill pickle you’ve had on the side at a deli. And vinegar and spices boiled with water and sugar kick up the flavor of basically any sliced vegetable in just a couple hours, adding acidic flare to your dinner tonight, whether it’s tacos or sandwiches or a salad.
Since quarantine hit I’ve been getting a lot of questions about pickling. I presume it’s because we’re all trying to stretch ingredients, minimize waste, and create strong flavors to kick up our home cooking repertoires. Or maybe it’s because my podcast logo is an image of me as a pickle with a mustache… (I host Richard’s Famous Food Podcast: a densely sound-designed, musical, absurd, cartoon-like podcast about food that’s delved into fermentation (with fermentation guru Sandor Katz) and Christmas pickles.) Anyways, these two easy methods will get you started on your own home-style pickling journey. As we say on Richard’s Famous Food Podcast: “Jump into the brine”™!
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I define a “pickle” as anything preserved in an acidic state. You can get there many ways. It’s not just pouring a vinegar brine over vegetables, but that is certainly one method. Another is using a salt brine and lactic acidic fermentation.
The 3-2-1 vinegar pickle
Uses: Sandwiches, breakfast bowls, tacos, salads, condiment for grilled animal proteins.
I learned this from Wesley Avila when we wrote the Guerrilla Tacos cookbook. This is less about preservation and more of a way to add a ton of flavor to vegetables quickly and create a versatile condiment you can use today that will keep in your fridge a couple weeks.
Prep the vegetables: Slice red onion, coins of carrots or cucumbers, florets of cauliflower, beets, or any spicy pepper. Pack them into a heat-safe vessel, e.g. a glass mason jar.
In a saucepan, combine 3 parts water, 2 parts vinegar (white vinegar or apple cider), 1 part sugar (optional) and ~1 teaspoon salt per cup of vegetables, plus any combination of dry spices*. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Immediately pour hot brine over vegetables. Let it sit out for a couple hours to gently cook/wilt the veg and imbue it with delicious flavor. Keep in the fridge for a couple weeks.
Fermentation is the transformative action of microorganisms, naturally occurring healthy bacteria, and yeast that changes food from one thing into another. It’s the process that turns flour and water into bread, grapes into wine and vinegar, and milk into yogurt and cheese. Without fermentation, there’s no soy sauce, no chocolate. People get squirrely about trying fermentation at home because you’re leaving stuff out at room temperature for days, weeks, or months at a time. But that’s a necessary step if you want to make cheese, soy sauce, vinegar, chocolate, yogurt, sauerkraut — almost every dank and sour flavor I crave.
The 2% salt brine (lacto-fermented) pickle
Uses:cheese plates, sandwiches, salads, stir fries, snack on their own.
Lactic acid fermentation turns cucumbers into sour dill pickles, napa cabbage into kimchi, and chilis and garlic into Sriracha. This easy method works with any firm vegetable. Try carrots or green beans. As with the 3-2-1 pickle, I use lactic fermentation more for transforming ingredients into something more flavorful than for preservation. This pickle should be ready in a week.
Prep the vegetables: Scrub, clean, and pack them into a clean glass jar. Add a couple cloves of smashed garlic, plus any combination of dry spices*.
Stir 2 teaspoons non-iodized salt into 2 cups water until dissolved. Pour the salt brine over the vegetables and submerge with a weight**. Cover with a lid or clean cloth to keep out flies and dust. Check every day to ensure the vegetables are submerged and the vessel is clean, for a week. After a day or two you should see bubbles form on the surface. If bubbles are collecting into a foam on the surface, or it’s looking scuzzy, simply stir them back in with a clean spoon. Once activity has died down, taste your pickle. Your vegetables should be salty, flavored by the garlic and/or spices, and slightly sour. Cover and keep in the refrigerator, regularly “burping” (loosening the lid) to let any gasses escape every few days.
Leftover Brine Uses
Never throw out leftover brine! 3-2-1 brine is essentially a sweet infused vinegar that’s great in salads, marinades, and beans. The salty, sour brine of lacto-fermented pickles makes a terrific marinade for fried chicken. I use both kinds of brine in broad applications in place of vinegar or fresh lemon juice. You could also make a shrub: an acidic cocktail. Sauerkraut brine is delicious to drink on its own, and a known hangover cure.
* Black peppercorns, clove, allspice, bay leaf, star anise, dill seed, cinnamon, coriander, mustard seed, dried chilis… experiment with different combinations and definitely don’t bother measuring.
** For a weight, use a small clean glass jar filled with water, a plate, or a clean ziplock bag filled with water.