Pickling 101: The Ultimate Guide to Everything Pickled
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Pickling as a form of food preservation has been around for millennia. According to the “Pickle History Timeline” published by the New York Food Museum, archaeologists believe that pickling originated more than 4,000 years ago in ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Middle East). Pickled cucumbers (which we most commonly associate with pickled foods) are said to date back to 2030 BC in India, where cucumbers originated.
Aristotle is said to have praised the curative benefits of pickled cucumbers, they are rumoured to have been one of Cleopatra’s secret beauty weapons in Ancient Egypt, and Julius Caesar apparently fed them to his soldiers for strength. Pickles have even been mentioned in the bible a couple of times! It’s safe to say they are likely one of the world’s oldest “processed” foods.
Since ancient times, pickles have played, and continue to play, an important role in the diets of many cultures around the world. Eastern Europeans have relied on pickling foods to store for the cold winter months and are most well known for kosher and Polish-style pickles, sauerkraut and pickled beets. (And I should know; My family is of good Ukrainian stock and we don’t do a family dinner without all three of these things on the table). The English are known for their sweet pickles, the French for their cornichons, the Middle Easterners for pickled lemons, Koreans for kimchi and Japanese for pickled daikon radishes and ginger root.
Here in North America, home pickling dates back to the early 1600s. Later, in the mid 1800s, more modern canning practices and tools (including the renowned Mason Jar), led to more home canning of pickles the way we know them today.
What does “pickling” mean?
“Pickling” is the term used for preserving food in an acidic solution. There are typically two main ways to achieve this: vinegar and fermentation.
Vinegar: Foods pickled in vinegar can be canned and stored on shelves or in the refrigerator immediately. This is also called the “fresh-pack” or “quick-process” method. Since vinegar is acidic, it is the vinegar that preserves the food. You can use either white distilled vinegar or apple cider vinegar, as long as the acidity level is 5%. This is the way most commercially-produced pickles are made and it is the method many people most commonly associate with pickling in modern times.
Fermentation: You can also make pickles “the old fashioned way,” through fermentation. Fermentation is the process of naturally-occurring sugars breaking down in foods as they are left to sit over a period of time time. In the case of pickles, fermentation can be achieved through placing certain foods in a salt-water solution and leaving it to sit until the sugars break down and create a substance called lactic acid. The lactic acid itself becomes the acidic solution needed for pickling, so the addition of vinegar is unnecessary.
While using vinegar is probably the easiest, quickest and least intimidating method of pickling for most people, fermentation provides many more health benefits. In fact, unless you’ve been living totally off-grid for the past few years (in which case thank you for choosing my blog as one of your few connections to the outside world!), you probably know that fermented foods are all the rage right now. Everything from sauerkraut and kimchi to kefir and kombucha is a product of fermentation, which explains their popularity at the moment. Alcohol is also a product of fermentation. Its popularity is timeless and has nothing to do with health benefits; That, however, is an article for another day!
Back to pickling: the lactic acid in fermented pickles produces all sorts of beneficial enzymes, nutrients and good bacteria that promote gut health. While one method of pickling is neither better nor worse than the other, you might choose to do one or the other depending on your comfort and experience level with home pickling and canning, how much time you have/want to devote and what health benefits you are looking to reap in the end.
What can be pickled?
The best practices for pickling different foods will vary depending on the food, and not all foods are shelf-stabled when pickled. For example, eggs can be pickled and preserved for up to about 4 months in the refrigerator, but should not be canned and stored at room temperature. In fact, according to the National Centre for Home Food Preservation, pickled eggs stored at room temperature have caused botulism, a deadly foodborne disease. So always make sure you follow tested instructions specific for the foods you are pickling and canning.
Aside from different methods of pickling, there are some notable styles of pickling as well. Here are a few of the most popular cucumber-pickling styles:
Dill Pickles are by far the most popular type of pickles in North America. They are made with dill (duh) and a vinegar solution, although they may either be fresh-packed or fermented. They may or may not have garlic (garlic dills).
Kosher & Polish-Style (Polski Ogorki)
I’ve combined kosher and Polish-style pickles here since they are very similar, and in fact kosher pickles have origins in Poland as well as other traditionally Jewish areas. Now, this description will be the longest as I could probably write an essay about these types of pickles alone. Suffice it to say that -from my understanding- they are both variations of dill pickles, however they are always fermented, never fresh-packed, and garlic isn’t an option, it’s an absolute MUST.
Garlic is, after all, one of the few but mighty staples of Eastern European cuisine. In fact, while doing research for this article, I found many sources that claimed the addition of garlic to pickles is the thing that makes a pickle kosher. I don’t know that I’m sold on that and that alone, but garlic is a must anyway. Also, both kosher and Polish-style pickles are fermented in a salt-water solution.
Traditionally both koshers and Polski Ogorkis do not use any vinegar and they are never fresh-packed, because hey, that wasn’t really an option in the old country. In fact, the traditional way of making these types of pickles was to put vegetables, including cucumbers, cabbage and beets, in large vats or barrels with a salt-water (and garlic… don’t forget the garlic!) solution and allow these vats of veggies to ferment in a warm place before moving and storing them in a cool location. When Jews and Eastern Europeans migrated to North America, they brought this pickling style with them and the rest is pretty much history.
As far as the difference between kosher pickles and Polish-style, from my research (both online and talking to Jews and Eastern Europeans who all have a different opinion), it seems the biggest difference is simply that Polish-style pickles use a little more dill and spices, giving them a bit more of a kick. Also, some say that kosher pickles must be made with kosher salt while Polish-style can be made with regular pickling salt (which is how my mom makes hers). According to one Jewish respondent, “kosher pickles are simply pickles made by a Jewish mother on Brisket Sundays.” Hehe;) At least, I think he was joking…
One other distinction is that true kosher pickles must adhere to kosher food standards, including not having any animal products present or even traces of them. Therefore, to ensure a commercially-produced pickle is truly kosher, a rabbi must inspect the facility where they’re made and certify it. Or, of course, you could just make them at home, which is always the better choice.
Half-sour pickles are pretty much exactly what they sound like: half-sour. They are made in a salt-water brine that doesn’t contain any vinegar (like koshers and Polish pickles). But instead of being left to ferment completely (sour pickles), half sours are fermented for less time; Typically only a few days. Many who prefer half-sours say they like them better because fermenting for less time makes them crispier.
Sweet/Bread and Butter
Sweet pickles or “Bread and Butter” pickles are pickles that are sweet rather than sour due to the addition of sugar in the brine. They can be either fresh-packed or fermented.
Pickle Do’s and Don’ts
DO: Follow a tested pickling recipe to ensure a safe and tasty end product.
DO: Follow recommended canning procedures from a reputable source to ensure a safe and tasty end product. I recommend the National Centre for Food Preservation or any of the Ball home canning guides. This one is my go-to. I use it so much I have bookmarked many of the pages!
DO: Use commercially-produced vinegars. Both white vinegar and apple cider vinegar can be used for pickling. White vinegar has a sharper taste but will not discolour your pickled products. Apple cider vinegar has a more subtle taste but can darken produce. Certain types of vinegar are better for different things, but whichever you use, it has to have 5% acidity.
The easiest way to ensure this is to use commercially-produced (store-bought) vinegars. For example, I make my own apple cider vinegar, but since it’s homemade, I can’t be sure of the acidity levels. In fact, I can taste that mine isn’t as acidic as the store-bought variety, so I buy some to use for pickling.
DO: Store opened pickles in the refrigerator. Pretty simple.
DO: Try pickling at home! As it has been well outlined above, you can pickle pretty much anything and there are so many ways to do it! Again, for a huge variety of tested, tried-and-true recipes, I HIGHLY recommend the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. This book has over 50 pickling recipes and 400 recipes in total! Aside from recipes passed down to me from my family, every single one of the canning recipes I use so far is taken or adapted from this book.
DON’T: Get creative with recipes. It is very important when canning any foods that you stick to a tested recipe to ensure your canned food is safe to eat. When it comes to pickling, the ratio and percentages of salt and vinegar are very important, so don’t mess with these. Once you become more seasoned at pickle-making, you can add different herbs and spices, but even these can affect the safety and quality of your pickles if you put too much of any one thing. If you’re new to pickle-making, get your feet wet with tried-and-true recipes before attempting to put your own spin on things.
DON’T: Follow outdated canning procedures. Much like following tested recipes, it is super important to follow up-to-date safe canning methods as recommended by a reputable source. While you might have a grandmother or relative who says “we never boiled our jars of pickles in a hot-water bath and I’m still alive,” it is still recommended that you follow up-to-date procedures just to be on the safe side.
My mom doesn’t process her pickles in hot water. She simply turns her jars with her fermented pickles and hot brine upside down and lets the hot water inside seal the jar lids. But sealed lids aren’t enough! In order to ensure dangerous bacteria are killed, you must process your jars in hot water for a specified amount of time (usually about 10-15 minutes).
Sure, my mom’s pickles haven’t killed her (or me) yet and probably never will. But I’m not taking that risk with my family. I love her recipe, but I use safe, tested canning methods to make sure I get to love her recipe for a long time to come.
DON’T: Use regular table salt for pickles. Most pickle recipes call for pickling salt or kosher salt, so use one of these two, or at least use sea salt if that’s your only option. While using table/iodized salt is not necessarily life-threatening, it can cake together, make the water cloudy and change the colour of whatever it is that you’re canning.
DON’T: Freak out if your garlic turns blue when pickled! (I did the first time I pickled beans!) This can happen when certain compounds in garlic react to the acid in your brine. This blue garlic is still totally safe to eat, so no worries there. However if you don’t love the colour, you can try to prevent this from happening by using distilled water for pickling, using iodine-free salt, using stainless steel or enamelled cookware, blanching garlic before pickling, and storing fresh and pickled garlic in a cool, dark place (source: The Spruce).
Where to Begin?
If you’re just starting out, I recommend starting with the fresh-pack method (pickling in a vinegar solution). But nothing says you can’t try out some fermented pickles! I’ll be posting my mom’s recipe for Ukrainian-Style Garlic Dill Pickles (like Polish-style) when cucumbers are ready for harvest in a couple months.
As for any special equipment, I highly recommend a jar lifter for lifting jars in and out of your canner. I honestly don’t know how I would can without these. I’d probably have burned my hand pretty badly already. For a few bucks, they are well worth the investment to keep you from getting burned and keep your jars from breaking as the grip on these lifters is really solid.
You might also want to invest in a pressure canner if you plan on doing a lot of canning down the road. While you don’t need to pressure can pickles, you can use the canner for hot water-bath canning as well.
You can buy water bath canners, but I think they’re a waste of money (just my opinion). All you really need for water-bath canning is a regular cooking pot, so long as you place something (like a rack or even folded kitchen towel) on the bottom of the pot between the pot and your canning jars to prevent them from breaking.
A water-bath canner does hold more jars, but so does a pressure canner, and you can can more types of food in it. You can’t can’t do that with a water-bath canner. See what I did there? That’s just my humble opinion though. I have two pressure canners passed down to me by relatives. My favourite is the All-American.
You’ll also need proper canning jars and lids. Any brand of canning jars (Mason Jars) will do: Ball, Kerr, Golden Harvest, Bernardin (which I believe is the Canadian version of Ball)… I usually buy mine for super cheap at local thrift stores.
You can totally reuse old jars over and over again, as long as you clean and sterilize them well (which you need to do anyway), and make sure there are no chips in the glass. You can also reuse the canning bands. But always buy new lids. Once they have been sealed and popped off once, the seal is broken and won’t work anymore.
As for any other canning equipment, nothing else is absolutely necessary, but I do love my canning scoop (for scooping brine, jellies and jams, sauces and other liquids into jars without spilling everywhere). I also really love my canning funnel/measuring tool. It helps me make sure all the liquid goes into the jar easily without a mess and also helps me accurately measure headspace in my jars: another super important part of canning.
Make sure to label your jars too. You should always label jars with what they contain (ie. Dill Pickles) as well as the date they were made. Most canned products have a guaranteed shelf life of up to a year or even longer, but you probably don’t want to be eating 15-year-old canned pickles. Dates are important. I need to get better at this myself. Canning labels come in new packs of jars, but if you buy them separately, I like these dissolving labels best because they wipe off the jars easily after you use up the content and wash them for their next use.
Last, make sure you store your jars in a cool, dark place, definitely out of direct sunlight. Also, if any jars don’t seal properly when you first make them you can store them in the fridge for up to 3 months. If you notice jars on your shelves are leaking or the food looks like it has somehow spoiled, don’t eat the pickles. Just toss ‘em. They’re not worth you or your family getting sick.
Pickling for beginners and pros alike
Over all, pickles are a safe, easy way to try your hand at canning for the first time. As long as you follow a tested recipe, you’ll do just fine! If canning isn’t for you but you just love pickles, you can make refrigerator pickles too. There are a whole bunch of refrigerator pickles in the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving as well. (Have I mentioned how amazing this book is?)
If, however, you’ve been canning and pickling for years, then I hope you learned something new or were at least entertained by this article! And surely you haven’t tried pickling everything there is to pickle. How about pickled watermelon rinds? Or lemons and limes? Or pumpkin (guess where you can find all those recipes? Yup! ——> BCBHP).
And as always, if you have any of your own pickling recipes, tips or “fun facts,” please do share in the comments section below! I love, love, love to hear from all my lovely readers!
Now go forth! Pickle, preserve and procreate! (Sorry, I needed another “p” word). But hey, if pickling strikes your fancy, I am not here to judge! Just make sure to enjoy:)
Until next time,