By Susan Marquesen ©2015
Penn State Master Gardener
Master Food Preserver
In a pickle about what to do with a bumper crop of vegetables from the garden? Pickling is a favorite method for preserving the harvest. The home preserver has two options for pickling: fermentation or quick-process.
When we think “pickle,” brined cucumbers come to mind, but many vegetable and fruits are suitable for pickling. Fermentation is the natural process of converting a cucumber, a low-acid food, into a high-acid pickle. Pickling cucumbers are placed in brine, a salt/water/vinegar solution. When held at room temperature each cucumber cures into a pickle in about 3-4 weeks. The pickles can then be safely processed in a hot water bath to become a shelf-stable jar of pickles.
In the quick-process or raw pack method, vegetables and fruits are placed in a jar and a hot vinegar solution is added. Small amounts of flavor enhancers such as herbs, spices, garlic, or red pepper flakes are added. The resulting high-acid pickles are then processed in a hot water bath. After a few weeks on the shelf, the flavor of the pickle fully develops.
While dill is the most common flavor of pickle, the lowly cucumber also makes a wonderfully tart lemon pickle or a slightly sweet bread & butter pickle. Vegetable options include snap beans, which become dilly beans, as well as carrots, cauliflower, zucchini, Brussels sprouts, peppers, okra and mixtures like chow-chow. A three-bean salad is technically a pickle which can be prepared and processed in the summer then enjoyed all winter long.
Fruit pickles are delightful! Pickles from cantaloupe melon, figs, pears, apple rings and watermelon rind are common favorites. The vinegar syrup usually has added sugar and is spiced with cinnamon, cloves, allspice, and/or ginger.
A relish is a pickle that is chopped rather than whole or sliced. And while the cucumber is a common base ingredient, relishes come in all sorts of flavors and colors: sweet red pepper relish, onion relish, corn relish, fennel relish, beet/cabbage relish and sweet apple relish - a perfect accompaniment to pork roast. Chutneys, a relish of Indian origin, utilize mangos or apples and can be easily prepared in the home kitchen.
Whatever form of pickle you chose to create, there are a few rules that you must follow to ensure success and safety. Always use research-based recipes and methods developed by food scientists at the USDA, the Land Grant Universities (like Penn State), or the Ball Corporation. Circumventing these techniques puts the safety of your family and friends at risk. A list of reliable sources for home pickling can be found at the end of this article.
Use the best-quality firm, fresh produce, at peak ripeness. Process your produce immediately after harvest to ensure flavor, texture and nutrient-retention. Adhere to the recommendations in the recipe, which may include varietal and size recommendations. For cucumbers, use pickling cucumbers of similar size and make sure you cut 1/16-inch from the blossom-end of the cucumber because inherent enzymes will age and soften your pickles.
Crops from the home garden should be harvested in the morning after the dew has dried, but before the heat of the day has warmed the produce or herb. Travel with the Ball Blue Book in hand and look for prime produce at local farm markets and garden stands. You can then search for an appealing recipe and purchase the proper quantity of produce and recommended herbs.
Use only canning & pickling salt which is free of additives that may make your pickles cloudy. Do not alter the food, vinegar or water proportions in the recipe. Purchase commercially bottled vinegars of known acidity – 5% is the standard. White vinegar has neutral flavor, a sharper bite maintains the white color of pickled cauliflower. Apple cider vinegar is flavorful and a bit milder, but it can darken the color of the vegetable or fruit pickle.
One acceptable recipe change is tweaking the minor additions of herbs and spices or swapping an herb or spice for another to personalize your pickles. Do follow the rules, but have fun exploring the possibilities in creating a pantry of delicious, colorful and nutritious pickles. Happy pickling!