Do you love pickled foods? If so, chances are your ancestors did too.
Home pickling has been around for thousands of years. Examples of pickling have been dated as far back as 4000 years ago, with famous people like Cleopatra and Julius Caesar enjoying pickles as part of their diets.
Pickling was invented to preserve food in the days before refrigeration, but it has become a popular snack for its delicious acidic taste. As long as you stick to a few simple steps, pickling for beginners is a fun and easy activity for the whole family.
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What Is Pickling?
Some people think pickling only refers to cucumbers, but you can actually pickle just about anything.
Pickling is a form of preserving food achieved either through something called anaerobic fermentation or by submerging it in vinegar. As long as the pH is 4.6 or lower, the food has been properly pickled. And this means most of the bad bacteria have been killed.
When using the fermentation method for pickling, the curing process creates lactic acid. This lactic acid helps preserve and protect the food.
If using the vinegar-based pickling method, acetic acid from the vinegar replaces the need for lactic acid to build up through fermentation. As a result, vinegar-based pickling will often be referred to as "quick-pickling".
For beginning picklers, it’s easiest to start with the vinegar brine method of pickling.
Tip: If you're brand new to canning, preserving, and/or dehydrating, consider getting a book. This big list of 21 canning and preserving books is a great place to start.
Two Types of Pickling
There are two traditional ways of pickling food. Because of the high acidity in vinegar, submerging food in a vinegar solution stops bad bacteria from growing. So food gets preserved for long periods of time.
The other pickling method (anaerobic fermentation) happens through a saltwater brine. The salt helps ferment the food, growing good bacteria and making it difficult for spoilage-causing bacteria to take over.
Once you've tried your hand at quick-pickling, learn how to use a fermenting crock. These traditional vessels are the easiest way to get started using the fermentation method for pickling.
Learn more about beginning picklers.
What is Pickling Spice?
Any post about pickling for beginners should include info on spices to use with your pickled vegetables.
Buy your pickle spice or make your own pickling spice at home. It will help add flavor and seasoning to your pickled foods during the pickling process.
The herbs and spices vary by the recipe but usually include:
- bay leaves
- mustard seeds
- dried chili peppers
While you can buy pre-made pickling spices, it's so easy to do it yourself. And then you can customize seasonings to suit your family's taste.
What Can I Pickle?
Pickling works great with a wide variety of foods, but people most commonly choose vegetables. It’s best to use vegetables with thick skin. This helps the pickle hold its shape better and stay somewhat crisp as a final product.
Some of my favourite foods to pickle include:
- Cucumbers (obviously)
- Hot Peppers
Certain types of cucumber, like the Kirby, are better for pickling since they have thicker skin and are a bit shorter in length. If you didn’t grow your vegetables yourself, try to get them from a farmers’ market.
Commercially grown vegetables might have a waxed coating that messes with the pickling process. So if you do use supermarket vegetables, do your best to clean them as thoroughly as possible.
Although it’s preferable to use freshly picked produce when pickling, you can also use veggies that are getting too ripe. For homesteaders that have an overabundant harvest this fall, pickling offers a great preservation and flavor-alternative to basic canning.
Making Your Vinegar Brine
Depending on your desired tartness of pickle, there are a few different recipe variations you can make with your brine. For some traditional pickling recipes, including Quick Dill Pickles, check out North Dakota State's pickling recipes and basics.
You can use different types of vinegar, (watch for my upcoming post on pickling with apple cider vinegar) but white vinegar is easiest if you're making pickles for the first time. If you add a tablespoon or two of sugar, it will add some sweetness and lower the tartness of your batch.
Prepping Your Produce & Making Pickles
After you’ve made the brine, you need to sterilize the jars you will be using. Boil them in a pot, and follow the same process as you would for water bath canning.
Wash and chop your veggies into uniform sizes. If you’re using smaller vegetables, don’t worry about chopping them, just keep in mind the larger they are, the longer it will take the brine solution to penetrate them.
For denser vegetables, like carrots or cauliflower, blanching them first will soften them enough to let the brine penetrate it. Once you’ve prepped your veggies of choice, place them in your jar along with any herbs and spices you may wish to add.
Pour the hot brine solution into the jar, making sure you submerge all the produce. Leave some space at the top so your vessel doesn’t explode! Once you’ve sealed the jar, let them cool before storing.
If you don’t want to use the water bath canning method, simply seal the jar and place it in your fridge. However, without the canning method, your pickles will only last about a month in the fridge.
More Resources on Pickling for Beginners
Pickling for beginners is an easy and simple way to store your extra harvest over the winter months. The old-fashioned vinegar brine method has many variations and you can get creative adding different herbs and spices to your own liking.
Even if you don’t can them for root cellar storage, a quick-brine in the fridge is great to always have some pickles handy for snacking. Try some different recipes out from the below links and let us know what your favorites are!