Pickling is utterly twee, from start to finish. This is a technique that, in some forms, actually requires a mason jar. It conjures images of grandmothers preserving the year’s harvest for the hard winter ahead, and what could be more authentic and shitty than that? Pickling is tailor-made for Pinterest, is what I’m saying. But you should not let that count against it. Pickles are delicious. And, in the form I prefer, pickling is an extremely easy and quick technique to bring a ton of intense flavor to a variety of plant items.
Pickling is a pretty vague term; it can refer to any of several preservation techniques involving salt, vinegar, or both. Some involve heat, some do not. The main branches of the pickle tree (this metaphor works because pickles do not grow on trees) are the salt branch and the vinegar branch. The salt branch is probably the oldest and still feels the most primal: A vegetable or fruit is placed in a salt and water solution, usually at room temperature, which causes various anaerobic bacteria to begin to eat the plant. They die and let loose with gaseous byproducts, which changes the flavor and sometimes the texture of the plant. A classic, ultra-traditional New York City deli pickle is an example of this; the most ornery of deli pickle recipes rely on no vinegar whatsoever. This method requires a long period of time and can also be sort of gross; the byproducts are often referred to as “scum,” because that is a good way to refer to a mass of white fungus-y stuff.
A vinegar brine is easier and quicker. Vinegar is not as excellent of a preservative as salt, which means a vinegar pickle won’t last as long, but if you’re just looking for that pickle-y flavor, which I am, vinegar takes the place of the natural byproducts of bacteria that a salt pickle takes so long to force out. But because we don’t really care about a vinegar pickle remaining shelf-stable for months, we don’t mess with the rigamarole of sterilizing jars and boiling them to seal them. A vinegar pickle is more like an XXX-TREME marinade (with some mild preservative properties) than the ancient mystical bacterial forces that turn cucumbers into deli pickles or cabbage (or whatever) into kimchi. But that doesn’t make it a lesser pickle; it’s merely easier.
Quick pickling takes like fifteen minutes and requires no specialized equipment or knowledge. The ratio of apparent difficulty to actual difficulty is EXTREMELY HIGH — the kind of ratio I like because I am very lazy. The basic formula is: Slice a fruit or vegetable thinly. Place it in a glass container of some sort. In a pot, bring vinegar and sugar to a boil. Pour it over the over sliced plant matter. Cover and let it cool.
The shorter brining period necessitates a thinly sliced pickle; you don’t have enough time for the vinegar to penetrate a thick cucumber or a whole daikon or even a whole beet. That means that quick pickles tend to find their best uses as ingredients, rather than as snacks by themselves. Where you might munch on a dill pickle, it’s not quite as satisfying to eat a thin sliver of quick-pickled red onion. But I like that. All my favorite dishes are studies in balance: savory, sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, herbal, salty, fatty. So a quick pickled vegetable becomes one of those finishing touches that can bring balance to a dish, like a last drizzle of oil, a pinch of salt, or a splash of hot sauce.
There is no iron-clad recipe for quick pickles, because you need to adjust the vinegar solution depending, mostly, on how sweet the thing you’re pickling is. A carrot, being very sweet, needs less sugar than a radish. But a general starting point is three quarters of a cup of vinegar to one tablespoon of sugar, with a pinch of salt. You need enough liquid to cover the vegetables; you want the vegetables to hang out in a soothing bath of vinegar solution. You can use them right away, or put them in the fridge and use them for around two weeks, keeping them in their solution, along with whatever aromatics (chiles, peppercorns, herbs) you like. The flavor will get more and more intense the longer you wait, but these aren’t shelf-stable like some more intensive pickles, so they need to stay cold, and won’t last much longer than a couple weeks.
Shopping list: Red onions, apple cider vinegar, black peppercorns, dried bay leaves, sweetener (either brown sugar, white sugar, or honey)
With a sharp knife, slice off the top of a red onion, opposite the root. Stand it on the newly flat edge and slice downward through the root, giving you two halves. Peel off the shitty papery outer skin. (Save it if you’re the kind of weirdo that makes stock from those things; I am.) With a mandoline, slice these halves into very thin half-rounds. Place them in a nonreactive container, like a Pyrex tupperware or a mason jar if you live in Brooklyn or wish you lived in Brooklyn. In a small saucepan on the stove, pour in three quarters of a cup of apple cider vinegar and a tablespoon of whatever sweetener you like. Add in a few peppercorns and two bay leaves, and bring the mixture to a boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar. As soon as it boils, turn the heat off and pour the vinegar mixture over the onions. The onions should be just covered; if not, go make some more brine. Cover and let it come down to room temperature, which will take about thirty minutes.
Uses: On top of anything fatty, especially tacos like carnitas or on rice and beans. Put them into any sandwiches; they are especially excellent with grilled cheese and falafel. Add to a traditional egg salad, along with a little bit of the brine. The brine, by the way, doesn’t go bad and is delicious by itself. Try it on french fries instead of ketchup!
Carrot and Radish
Shopping list: Carrots, radishes, rice wine vinegar, white sugar, dried chile flakes
Because you’re mixing carrots (very sweet) and radishes (not very sweet), you can pretty much keep the same ratio as you did with the onions: three quarters cup of vinegar to one tablespoon sugar. You can use any kind of carrot and any kind of radish, though I’d recommend against darkly colored vegetables; red onions turn gloriously pink when pickled, but purple carrots and colored radishes just look sort of miscolored. Anyway, do as before: slice vegetables thinly, put them in container, bring liquid to a boil and pour over vegetables.
Uses: This is a modified version of the pickles used for a banh mi, so it’s great in, well, a banh mi, or anything with those flavors. My favorite is a noodle salad. Cook ramen (instant is fine, maybe even better) and cool; toss with pickled carrots and radishes, crushed peanuts, and fresh mint and basil and cilantro. For a sauce, use the ginger vinaigrette from this post.
Shopping list: Golden raisins, white wine vinegar, white sugar, dried chile flakes, mustard seeds, sprig of fresh rosemary
I know I’ve already talked about pickled grapes, but this is a little different. Golden raisins are one of my favorite ingredients to go with savory dishes, and usually you need to rehydrate them in hot water. But what if we used a deliciously spicy liquid instead of water? Throw a handful of raisins in a glass container, adding in the sprig of fresh rosemary. In a pan on the stove, bring three-fourths cup of white wine vinegar, a half-tablespoon of sugar, a pinch of chile flakes, and a few mustard seeds to a boil. Pour the liquid over the raisins, cover, and let cool.
Uses: These are POWERFUL pickles, intensely sweet and sour and spicy. They’re great on rich meats, like duck or pork, but I like them in a couscous salad. Cook couscous the usual way (1:1 ratio of couscous to boiling water, cover and let sit for a few minutes, uncover and fluff with fork), add in toasted walnuts or pine nuts, chopped cucumber and any other fresh vegetables you have around (anything green works, really). Top with olive oil, salt, and a squeeze of lemon juice.
You can pickle pretty much anything, though generally I like to stick with things that are crunchy. Cucumbers can work well in a quick pickle, though they’ll never get that deep dark funk of a fermented pickle. Fennel pickles really well, as do raw beets or kohlrabi or pretty much any other winter root vegetable. (Stay away from cabbage, though; I love cabbage, but with a quick pickle I tend to think they get a little farty.)
I like quick pickles because they are delicious and easy to make, but also because having them on hand encourages you to balance flavors more than you might have otherwise. Think of, say, a sandwich. The world’s great sandwiches — the banh mi, the Cuban, the reuben — have a hit of acidity from a pickle. The pickle is what makes them. And they’re not hard to make.
Photo by timlewisnm
Crop Chef is a column about the correct ways to prepare and consume plant matter.