Pickling can be a great and flavorful way to preserve foods, whether for survival purposes or simply to stretch your budget in a smart and delicious manner. A variety of food products, including those that aren’t really suitable for other preservation techniques (such as canning, drying, or smoking) can be effectively pickled so that they can keep for months and even years longer than their fresh counterparts.
Pickling food is painfully easy—you just need a few supplies, some tried and true recipes, and a bit of time and patience. Pickling generally involves use of salt water, vinegar and spices to add longevity and flavor to the food being preserved.
Although cucumbers are a clear favorite all over the world as far as pickling is concerned, a variety of foods can be pickled, including eggs, beets, peppers, celery, cauliflower, carrots, and a host of other vegetables and various fruits.
Getting started: what you’ll need
Pickling is a food preservation method that doesn’t take much to get right. Many of the necessary supplies you may already have at home (especially if you’re already a fan of canning food), and the others don’t cost a lot of money to acquire. Here is what you’ll need to get pickling:
A good container to pickle the food and store it in
You need to do your pickling in an appropriate container. I have found that mason jars—typically used for water-bath canning and pressure canning—are great for pickling, as well, since they are suitable for sterilization and made of glass (thus, no worries about botulism sneaking in, or nasty plasticky chemicals like BPA leeching into your food over time). Other suitable containers may include any glass or stainless steel container with a tight-fitting lid that can be washed in good, hot water.
The ingredients for your brine/pickling juice
Make sure you follow a tried and tested recipe that is appropriate for preserving the food type you are pickling. There are many different types of recipes, depending on the food you will be pickling. For most recipes, salt water and vinegar will play a prominent role. These ingredients serve to both preserve and flavor the food being pickled. Spices, such as garlic, dill, or other tasty additions, may be added to bolster the taste of the finished product.
You will likely need multiple large pots and some smaller pans to sanitize your pickling receptacles and to make up a batch of brine, as well as water (both for the brine and for sterilizing containers that will not be treated with a canning for storage at room temperature, such as pickled eggs). You will also want to have kitchen towels around to wipe up any messes and to clean off the mouths of containers before affixing lids. Make sure you have containers of suitable size to get the job done, and work with only the freshest foods to ensure a high-quality outcome.
Handy helpers—not necessary, but they make the job easier!
Just as with home canning, funnels can be very convenient for filling up containers with brine. Tongs, lid lifters, jar lifters, and other tools of the canning trade come in equally handy when used in pickling.
How to get going
All right—you’ve got your stuff, and you’ve got the motivation. Now, it’s time to get pickling! Here’s how to go about it.
Prepare your containers
Thoroughly clean the containers and tools you will be using during the pickling process. Some recipes call for canning the pickled food, either using a pressure canner or a water-bath canner. Foods that will be processed in a canner for longer than 10 minutes will not require full sterilization of the jars, but you still want to get them good and clean prior to starting. Foods that will not be processed in a canner (such as pickled eggs) should be placed into sterilized jars. To sterilize jars, heat them in water in a large pot that covers them and allow the water to boil around them for a full 10 minutes. Lids and bands cannot be sterilized at a full boil, so clean these by simmering them lightly in another pot for 10 minutes prior to use (this is where a magnetic lid-lifter comes in handy—you can easily pick up hot lids from simmering water without fear of burning).
Create your brine
Grab your recipe and get started on making your brine as your jars boil (or as they get cleaned in the dishwasher). Brine recipes can vary vastly, but most call for vinegar, salt, water and spices and many are boiled for a certain period of time prior to being poured over the food to be preserved. Follow instructions for creating your chosen brine very carefully to make sure your food will be both delicious and well-preserved. Failure to use sufficient salt or vinegar may result in shorter shelf lives and may affect flavor negatively.
Pickle your food according to recipe
Once your brine and containers are ready, pickle up your chow! Place food into jars and pour brine over the top, making certain the food being preserved is fully covered. Remember, if your brine is hot you want your jars to be hot, too (to prevent cracked glass due to temperature change). Work as quickly as you safely can, packing jars with the right amount of food, adding brine to cover, wiping off mouths of containers, and affixing lids. If your recipe calls for canning, place sealed jars into the canner and process according to recipe. If your recipe calls for refrigeration, get those jars into the fridge immediately. Make sure to label containers with contents and date so you know how long they’ll be good for.
Allow the food time to pick up flavor, then enjoy!
Pickling food is a bit like marinating it—it takes a bit of time for the food you’re processing to pick up a good amount of flavor. Typically (just as with marinating), the longer you let the food rest in its brine, the greater the flavor will be. A good brining recipe should include instructions on how long you should wait before digging into that first jar of pickled food (for example, the dilled egg recipe I used suggests waiting at least two days before eating—for flavor’s sake).
Storage and shelf life
Foods that are pickled and then canned can generally be kept at a stable room temperature for quite some time—many months and possibly even years (although usually the recommendation you see is to consume within one year of pickling). Refrigerator pickles and pickled eggs must be kept cold, and ideally should be consumed within one season (or three months) for optimal food quality and flavor.
What are you waiting for? Get pickling!
Now that you’ve got a rough idea of how to do it, I hope you’ll go forth and pickle! There are a whole bunch of great recipes out there for brines (I’ve found more than 10 different ways to pickle eggs alone), and there are so many foods that are great candidates for preservation by pickling—foods that aren’t amenable to being preserved by other methods. Add flavor and an increased lifespan to your favorite foods, and enjoy vegetables (with an extra tang and tart) out of season. Happy pickling, everyone!