Pickling is a form of food preservation that uses either vinegar or brine to keep food from spoiling. Good cooks in all households, rich or poor, throughout history had to know what they were doing if they were to get maximum yield and minimum waste from their home-grown produce, whether a tiny veg patch or a large kitchen garden. Therefore, if we’re to cook historical recipes, we too need to know what we’re doing.
Pickling in brine is essentially curing with salt and I’ll tackle that subject in a different post (this is not be confused with the brining some veg goes through before being pickled in vinegar (see below).
I thought that I’d go through how to make your own pickles at home as I got some good feedback on my previous preserving post: fruit jelly preserves. Pickling is easy and doesn’t require any expensive specialist equipment, so if you have never tried your hand at home-preserving, give it a go. A similar method is used to make flavoured vinegars, so I’ll write a little post on those too.
Vinegars: any vinegar can be used, however for long-term preservation a vinegar that is 5% acetic (ethanoic) acid is required. When it comes to choosing the correct, go for your personal preference. Malt vinegar packs the strongest punch and goes best with onions and shallots in my humble opinion. The cider and wine vinegars have a fresher, subtler flavour and are pretty much universal. Distilled or spirit vinegar is vinegar in its purest form, essentially just acid and water and can be used to pickle anything. It can be a little harsh so requires flavouring with aromatic herbs and spices.
Balsamic, Champagne and sherry vinegars can do the job of pickling perfectly well but are far too expensive for your glut of allotment red cabbage, though a touch of balsamic vinegar added to another does work well.
Pickled quails’ eggs
Herbs & Spices: Though not strictly essential, herbs and spices do give your pickles an extra aromatic dimension and take the edge off that often harsh vinegar astringency. Most herbs can be used with great effect: thyme, rosemary, bay, savory, oregano, dill and fennel all work very well.
Pretty much any whole spice can be used successfully here: fresh ginger, peppercorns, mustard seeds, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, fennel seeds, dried or fresh chillies and dill seeds are the usual suspects. Use whatever you like, but a general rule for spice mixes is to add up to 25g of spice to each litre of vinegar. A good general spice mix:
1 tbs allspice berries
1 tbs mustard seeds
1 cinnamon stick
2 tsp black or white peppercorns
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 or 2 dried chillies
I’m going a little mediaeval and including sugar as a spice: the deliciousness of a pickle can be heightened immensely with a seasoning of sugar. This is especially important when pickling fruit such as pears or strawberries.
Salt: Many vegetables need to be salted in some way before pickling. The salting process draws water from the veg both firming it up and taking away water that would otherwise leach out and dilute the vinegar. Use either rock or sea salt for this, never table salt; it is far too harsh and inevitably some salt ends up in the final pickle, so a nice complex salt is best.
There are two types of salting: dry salting is where salt is sprinkled over vegetables and left overnight to drain. The other way is by brining, where the veg is immersed in a strong salt solution for 12 to 24 hours. A typical brine contains 85g of salt per litre of water.
The produce: these are the fruit, vegetables or eggs you want to pickle! They need to be a good size, unbruised and not overripe. Some vegetables need to be salted or cooked, some neither! When preparing your produce, make sure the pieces are a good size for when you come to eat them, and that they of a good size and shape to be packed well into jar. It’s important to remember that the produce needs to be completely covered and that there needs to be a decent space, around one centimetre, between the vinegar and the jar rim.
Aside from your regular kitchen pots, pans and jugs, there is little specialist equipment required.
Muslin & string: used to tie herbs and spices to infuse into the vinegar. Not essential though, as you always pass the vinegar through a sieve.
Jars & lids: obviously this is a must-have. I tend to use stocky hardwearing Kilner jars where I can, but I also hang on to any decent-sized jars that come my way. Make sure the metal lids of jars have a layer of white plastic under them; this makes them vinegar-proof.
Just part of my jar collection!
How to Pickle
This is a four-stage process:
Preparing the produce: Sometimes there is no prep, sometimes there’s cooking or salting. Check the recipe before you embark on your preserving as some veg needs a full 24 hours salting!
Preparing the pickle: The vinegar is simmered with its herbs and spices for 5-10 minutes, depending on the pungency required. This can be strained if a muslin bag wasn’t used. The pickling liquor is used hot or cold depending upon the recipe.
Potting: sterilised jars need to be packed quite tightly with your produce before the vinegar is poured in. Make sure everything is covered and pop the lid on tightly. Give the jar a jiggle to remove air bubbles. See this post if you don’t know how to sterilise jars.
Maturing: Leave your pickles for a month before eating them so that the vinegar can penetrate the veg. Waiting also matures the flavour making it more rounded and less harsh. Patience, dear readers, is a virtue.
Pickled white beetroot