How To Pickle Vegetables

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Getting yourself in a pickle doesn't have to be a bad thing when you're pickling veggies and fruits from your garden. Your grandmother used to do it with her cucumbers, beans, carrots and green tomatoes. She may have also pickled okra, watermelon rind and assorted relishes. Pickling isn't new, but it has had a bit of a renaissance in recent years. The economic downturn has led to a big increase in backyard vegetable gardens, and where there's summer garden bounty, reliable preservation methods become a priority.

Pickling Instructions & Guidelines

Pickling is first and foremost a method for preserving food. It's important to get that point out of the way. Pickled foods may taste good, but the vinegar in the mixture, or the brine used in the recipe, are important.

Many pickling recipes are persnickety about proportions and the use of specific ingredients like a 5 percent vinegar solution. There's a reason for that. Vinegar is acidic and a natural antibacterial agent. Salt is an antibacterial ingredient, too. When used to preserve food, they provide a one-two punch that keeps pickled preparations safe to eat. Sugar is another antibacterial ingredient. Home cooks have been preserving foods with vinegar, salt, sugar and a few other antibacterial aids for centuries because they work. They keep preserved foods safe from bacteria, mold and simple spoilage. Because the proportions of these ingredients are important, it pays to follow a pickling recipe's instructions precisely.

Processing provides added protection, too. The principles of pickling and canning can get a little complicated. Some recipes are designed to be prepared and refrigerated immediately. They do not require a hot water bath. Others require dwell time in boiling water and canning using sanitary preparation methods. If a recipe is to be refrigerated, hot water canning prep isn't essential. It is essential when the pickle is to be kept at room temperature.

A few recipes claim to be safe enough for room temperature storage without going through the hot water canning process. This third style of food prep is not recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Here's why: Many vegetables are so dense that the vinegar or brine doesn't penetrate deep enough to saturate the entire batch. Some types of bacteria, like the botulinum toxin, can develop inside improperly prepared room temperature foods and remain undetected. Botulism poisoning can be fatal. That's why most pickling recipes call for either formal canning methods of preservation (prolonged, high heat) or refrigerated storage. Proper canning using a pressure canner and cold temperature storage are both effective at discouraging the development of bacteria in food. They're safe when used properly.

how to pickle vegetables

Vegetable Pickling Options

You know that pickled cucumbers are tasty and low in calories, especially when prepared in dill recipes without added sugar. There are lots of other vegetables you can pickle, either alone or in combination, though. They make for a unique and colorful appetizer platter, and they're also tasty in salads. Here are some options you might not have thought of:

  • Artichoke hearts
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Green beans
  • Green pepper rings
  • Green tomatoes
  • Jalapeno peppers
  • Jicama
  • Mushrooms
  • Okra
  • Onion

Piccalilli and Other Fun Options

Once you discover the joys of pickling (it can be lots of fun), there are thousands of options out there. From piccalilli, a blend of chopped vegetables canned in brine or an oil and vinegar mixture, to relishes and chutneys, the world of homemade pickled food is at your disposal. If the idea of watermelon pickle sounds enticing, or the prospect of tomatillo relish for your next quesadilla is too tantalizing to pass up, give a few recipes a try.

Cucumber Pickle

By far the most commonly pickled vegetable is the cucumber. In fact, some small cucumber varieties are called gherkins or pickling cucumbers because they're small and regular in size, the perfect cucumbers for pickling.

Dill Pickles - Dill is the title spice in dill flavored pickles, but lots of other spices can be added to the flavor wallop of a good dill pickle. Spices comprised of seeds or berries can be roasted briefly to help release their flavor, too. Here are some common dill pickle spices you might like:

  • Allspice berries
  • Bay leaf
  • Black pepper
  • Cilantro
  • Cloves
  • Coriander seed
  • Fennel seed
  • Garlic
  • Mace
  • Mustard seed
  • Onion
  • Red pepper flakes

Sweet Pickle - Sweet pickles are made in a way similar to their dill counterparts, but the spices are somewhat different. Sweet pickles also call for the liberal addition of sugar. The necessary spices are available pre-blended at your local market. A sweet pickle recipe may call for a dozen or more spices, so using a prepared mixture can save time and money. If you love the idea of blending just the right proportions of your own sweet pickle spices, here are some of the most common ingredients used in prepared pickling spice blends:

  • Allspice berries
  • Bay leaf
  • Black pepper
  • Cardamom
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Coriander
  • Dried chilies
  • Ginger
  • Mace
  • Mustard seed
  • Nutmeg
  • Star anise

Another important element in a tasty cucumber pickle is crunch. Refrigerator pickle recipes are often called quick pickle recipes because the ingredients aren't fermented or cooked. That leaves them pretty crunchy. Cooking or fermenting pickles softens them. To regain the satisfying crunch, recipes usually call for a soak in alum (potassium aluminum sulfate). It's a common pickling and canning ingredient you can find in the spice aisle of your local grocery store. Without the addition of alum, cooked cucumber and other pickled vegetables won't have that garden fresh crunch you know and love.

Last Updated: July 1, 2012
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About Sara Elliot Sara Elliott is a freelance copywriter and dedicated blogger. Her popular gardening, cooking and crafting blog, The Herb Gardener, was cited by The Wall Street Journal for its fun and frugal tips. Sara has a degree in English, and you can find her health, crafting, and lifestyle pieces on sites like DiscoveryHealth.com, HowStuffWorks.com, Savvi.com and TLC.com.

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