Create your own delicious pickles quickly and easily
Pickling is one of our oldest methods of preserving food – in the past, it’s been a great way to preserve much-needed vitamins and minerals in food for times of scarcity ahead. In the UK pickled foods are fairly commonplace – whether it’s in the form of a cheese and Branston’s pickle sandwich, a pickled onion with your Ploughman’s or a local gran’s delicious, tangy fresh piccalilli. Worldwide, pickling has also been used for centuries, bringing us culinary delights like pickled herring from Sweden, fermented kimchi from Korea, and sour lime pickle from India.
One of the essential elements in pickled food is vinegar, because of its anti-microbial acetic acid content. This prevents the growth of harmful bacteria that flourish in alkaline or neutral conditions, and it’s essential in producing a good pickle that won’t spoil. Historically, Indian pickles have used strong malt vinegar, and cider vinegar is also a popular choice. For milder Asian or Nordic pickle, white wine or rice vinegar is commonly used – all of these work, as long as they’re at least 5% acidity.
When pickling, it’s important to remember that you’re preserving the veg in its current state, so it’s best to use the freshest specimens you can find. Past-its-best fruit and veg can be great in cooking, but won’t hold its own when pickled. The final essential ingredient is pure rock or sea salt – modern types of table salt are filled with chemicals and preservatives that will affect the pickling process.
Aside from the big three (vinegar, fresh produce and good salt), much of pickling is about how willing you are to experiment! Even a true beginner can really get creative in the kitchen here, as it isn’t an exact science – the important thing is to keep the ratio of vinegar, sugar and salt and the rest can be improvised. On top of the basic starting method of brining (salting) fresh fruit and veg then bottling in seasoned vinegar, different types of spices and ingredients can be added to pickles to bring a whole new flavour profile to humble veg.
To get started, you’ll need to find a recipe that works for you. Is there something you’ve been keen to try? Red cabbage, sliced cucumber, onions and tomatoes are all excellent starter pickles, so have a look online and see if you can find a recipe that tickles your fancy. Then, brine or dry salt your veggies for at least 24 hours. A good ratio to follow is 225g rock or sea salt to 2.8 litres of water – make sure to stir thoroughly so the salt is completely dissolved. This step is crucial because it draws excess water out of the vegetables, preventing the water from leaking out during pickling and diluting the vinegar.
Next, it’s time to heat your vinegar with any aromatics you’d like to use. Punchy flavours like star anise, juniper, allspice, cloves, dried chilli and garlic will give you a tart, fragrant vinegar, and some benefits of using whole spices is that they look lovely, are easy to remove and won’t cloud the liquid. Other great additions are fresh dill and parsley, bay leaves, peppercorns and fennel. Get creative! Heat the vinegar until you can smell all of those lovely aromatics in the steam – this means they’re nicely infused.
Leave the vinegar to cool, and sterilise your jars while you wait. You can use repurposed kitchen jars of any kind as long as they have an airtight lid, but rubber-sealed containers like Kilner jars are ideal. Sterilise your containers by washing in hot, soapy water, then heating through in a hot oven for about twenty minutes (remember to remove the rubber seals first, if they’re present). When everything is cool enough to handle, transfer the prepared veggies into the jars and pour over the pickling liquid. Seal the lids, and leave to cool.
Keep your jars of pickle in a cool place, or in the fridge to avoid fermentation. Longer-matured pickles will have a more intense flavour, but less crunch than those pickles you eat sooner after preparation. This is a really fun way to develop your tastebuds and experiment with seasonal vegetables. It’s a great feeling to accompany your lunch with a home-made pickle, and I think it’s a fairly addictive process!
If you’re short on time, or are after a quick fix of pickle to accompany a particular meal, this quick pickling recipe is ready in 24h and is a very approachable first base to get started from. It works really well with beetroots, cauliflower, cucumber and onions.