Pickling And Vinegars

Introduction

It may seem odd to combine pickling and vinegars into one chapter, but the two processes work very well together and play off of one another. Sometimes you may pickle something in straight vinegar and then be able to use the vinegar after preserving is complete; you can make specific vinegars which preserve flavors. Although pickling and vinegars do cross paths many times we’ll look at each one separately.

Pickling

Traditional pickling setup with wooden barrel and fresh veggies

What is the first (and for some, the only) thing that pops into mind when the word “pickling” comes up? Pickles, of course; dill pickles, sweet pickles, bread-and-butter pickles; especially in the US, pickling is almost synonymous with pickling cucumbers. But there is much more to pickling and pickles than cucumbers in a pickling solution (brine). When pickling you can create relishes, sauerkraut, fruit, cauliflower, okra, onions, carrots, figs … the list goes on and on. Even eggs and meats can be pickled. As you will see, some pickling doesn’t even involve vinegar.

Pickling came about as an answer to the need to preserve foods when there was no refrigeration. Pickles go back as far as 2400 B.C, where it was in use by Mesopotamians. During the Roman Empire, the emperors believed that pickles strengthened a person both spiritually and physically. By 1606, pickles were being produced at home and as a business. Today, pickles are in almost everyone’s refrigerator, and we pickle much more than just cucumbers. And nowadays, we pickle because we want to not because we have to.

But how does the most common way of pickling (pickling with vinegar) work? The process basically swaps out the water in a food with vinegar. By soaking the food of choice in a brine first (basically, a saltwater solution), the water is removed from the food. After removal from the brine, the food is then put into a vinegar-based pickling liquid, which will now be allowed to soak into the food. The vinegar will then slow any bacteria growth, which is another preserving property.

There are many different recipes for pickling almost any type of vegetable, and even some fruits. The pickling solutions can be dill, sweet, sour, hot, spicy, or a combination. Once you have made enough pickles from existing recipes, to the point where you are comfortable with the process, you can begin to create your own concoctions for the pickle jar.

Pickling Preparations

Copper measuring cup pouring spices into a jar of pickles

So you’ve decided that you want to do some pickling, but don’t know what equipment and supplies will be necessary.

The following is a list of the equipment and supplies usually needed for the process:

  • Crock, bowl, or non-reactive pot large enough to hold vegetables for brining
  • Strainer and cheesecloth
  • Non-reactive pot to cook vegetables in the pickling solution (when called for; not all recipes may call for cooking in the solution)
  • Canner, canning jars, lids, and rings

You will also need various spices, salt, herbs, and/or sugars depending on your recipe, as well as vinegar, with white vinegar being the most common type called for.

Also notice that crocks may be used for brining. Yes, crocks are still available for purchase; they can even still be purchased new, although you can use vintage or antique crocks so long as they can still hold liquid. If you have an old crock and are not sure if it will still hold liquid, before you begin to brine in it, place the crock in the tub or shower, fill with water and let it sit for at least 24 hours. If there is no water escaping from any cracks, then the crock should still be fit to use. Empty and clean the crock well. Before adding the brine and food, move the crock to the spot you want it to set. A cool spot is best. Then add brine and food, in no particular order.

Don’t forget the rules of safe food handling. Your vegetables or fruits need to be blemish-free, washed, and fresh. If there are any signs of rot or softness do not use that fruit or vegetable for pickling.

You will also need to prep and sterilize your jars, lids, and rings. From there, follow the directions of the pickling recipe that you have chosen. If you are making a lot of jars of pickles, you will probably choose to proceed with the canning process. However, if you’re only making two or three jars of pickles, you may then choose to simply refrigerate the jars instead of using the canning process. Should you choose to simply refrigerate a few jars of pickles, this is fine to do. However, remember that the jars of pickles will not be shelf stable, and will need to remain in the refrigerator, as would any jar you have opened for use.

There is one drawback to pickling. It can increase the salt content of the food, while reducing the vitamins. So if you have a problem with sodium this is something to keep in mind while eating pickled foods. Learn more about all about canning jars and jar lifters.

Pickling With Alcohol

You can also pickle without vinegar. This is done by using alcohol (the drinking kind) as the preserving agent instead of using vinegar. Although not usually a method used for vegetables, although it is possible, preserving fruit in alcohol is a very common practice, especially for holiday use and gifts. And, because it is considered such an easy way to preserve foods, the alcohol method is looked at as almost foolproof, even for the first time preserver. As such, it is a great project for the beginner.

Perhaps you have heard a grandparent, parent, or friend talk about “boozy fruit.” This is the result of using alcohol preservation to keep fruit longer. Basically, the fruit is preserved in a mix of alcohol and sugar. The alcohol could be rum, brandy, or a variety of other types of alcohol. The type used, and the ratio of alcohol to sugar will vary with the recipe, as well as the type of fruit used. However, it can also be as simple as putting fruit in a jar, covering the fruit with alcohol, tightly covering, and storing the jar in a cool dark place.

As the alcohol kills bacteria, fruits preserved in alcohol usually will not need refrigeration. However, if you feel better doing so, there is no harm in refrigerating the fruit.

Once the pickled fruit is ready (the amount of time necessary will vary by the recipe, with the length of pickling time being anywhere from a few days to almost a year) what will you do with it? The fruit may be served on ice cream, added to recipes, puréed for use in sauces, dropped into drinks, or used in any other way that works for you. Just remember that you have not cooked the fruit in the alcohol, so the alcohol will still be in the liquid and the fruit. So it is worth keeping this in mind when serving.

Pickling can be a fun preservation project. There are thousands of recipes in books, online, and passed down among the generations for pickling everything from cucumbers to pigs’ feet. And once you are comfortable with all of the basics, you can begin to create your own combinations and recipes. Discover more about preserving homemade sauces and condiments and techniques for long-lasting flavor.

Vinegars

Sometimes pickling can be as simple as putting something in a jar of (usually) white vinegar, in which case not only do you have the pickled food to eat, but the flavored vinegar to use as well. The vinegar will pick up the flavor of whatever you are pickling in it.

Herbs and hot peppers work best for vinegars, as the flavors will release quite nicely, giving you an excellent condiment. Although typically you pickle herbs in vinegar mainly to preserve the flavor of the herb in the liquid, you can use the pickled peppers that you make, as well as the flavored vinegar that will result. The peppers may be put in the vinegar whole, in slices, or in a combination. You can also drop pepper seeds loosely into the vinegar as well, to increase the heat. And don’t be afraid to create combinations of peppers and herbs or spices in the same jar. You really cannot make a mistake.

To make this even easier, going through the canning process is not necessary (but sterilizing the jars or bottles you use absolutely is), and all you need to do is let the jars set until you reach the desired flavor. This usually takes at least a few weeks. However, as long as the peppers are in the vinegar, the vinegar will become more potent. If you like the flavor at a certain point, you can remove the peppers from the vinegar, bag, and refrigerate the peppers for later use; the flavor of the vinegar will remain stable. The same holds true for the peppers. And there is no reason that you cannot chop up the pickled herbs and use them in a dish, should you want to try it.

So there you have it: a brief look at the simplicity of pickling. As you can see, it really is more than just a cucumber in a jar. Because there are so many options, you can stay as simple or become as creative as you choose. It is a tasty way to preserve some of your garden leftovers for later.

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