Our beginners guide to pickling is a basic straightforward introduction to how to pickle almost anything, from super-easy Southeast Asian quick pickles to Eastern European-style dill pickles just like your baboushka used to make. If you’re isolating or in lockdown, or just staying home and keeping safe, pickling is the perfect cooking project.
This beginners guide to pickling is a straightforward introduction to how to pickle almost anything – a pickling basics or Pickles 101, if you like. It’s for people like us, people who adore pickles and who have always wanted to do some pickling, but were intimidated or didn’t think they had time to start preserving things in jars.
Having grown up munching on my Russian grandmother’s homemade dill pickles, made from the bounty of beautiful organic produce my grandfather grew in the backyard veggie garden (when he wasn’t distilling vodka in baboushka’s laundry), I’ve been addicted to pickled gherkins since I was a little kid.
Wherever Terence and I have lived in the world – and we’ve lived in places where pickling is part of the culinary culture, everywhere from the Middle East to Southeast Asia – I’ve always made sure we had a jar of Polski Ogórki in the fridge. The Polish-style dill pickles are the closest in taste to baba’s gherkins. When she was older and too tired to pickle, she’d buy jars of the stuff herself.
I would eat them with rollmops and Eastern European-style black bread if I could get my hands on either, but until then I’m content to savour slices of gherkins with cheese on Terence’s sourdough bread, or as a side to a Russian feast of pelmeni and vareniki, cabbage rolls, and a pink potato salad. Terence puts dill pickles in his heavenly homemade tartare sauce.
Now he’s putting our pickled dill cucumbers in his homemade tartare sauce. Because after the world went into lockdown in March and Terence and I began staying at home and self-isolating as COVID-19 spread around the planet, we started quarantine cooking and embarking on cooking projects to keep us occupied and calm us and keep the anxiety at bay.
I put pickling on that list of cooking projects after reminiscing about my childhood growing up in Sydney’s western suburbs, and remembering how I used to watch my baba and papa pickle big batches of cucumbers, which they’d transform into those wonderful pickled gherkins that filled jar upon jar that they kept in their pantry come storage space off the kitchen.
Yes, it was a time-consuming process, but surely it couldn’t be that hard? Then I remembered seeing a Cambodian friend, the wife of a chef we were consulting to, walk into the restaurant kitchen one day, pull an enormous empty jar off the shelf, stuff it with a variety of veggies just-picked from their garden, throw in some fresh herbs and peppercorns, and brine she’d already prepared, seal the jar, and put it back on the shelf. She was done in five minutes. What were we waiting for?
Here’s our beginners guide to pickling and how you can pickle almost anything.
Beginners Guide to Pickling – How to Pickle Almost Anything
This is beginners guide to pickling almost anything. We’ll be following this up with more detailed pickling guides, pickling tips and pickling recipes.
What is Pickling
Pickling is preserving vegetables and fruit in brine or vinegar. The process by which they preserve is called anaerobic fermentation, which can preserve perishable ingredients for weeks and months. There are a few types of pickling you need to know about first before you start pickling.
Types of Pickling
There are essentially two types of pickling, each offering various methods by which to pickle, but this is a beginner’s guide to pickling, so we’re keeping things simple for now. The two kinds of pickles are pickles preserved with vinegar and pickles preserved with salt.
Pickling by Vinegar Brine
Vinegar-brined pickles are also called fresh pickles, because they are not fermented – although note that vinegar-brined pickle recipes usually contain some salt. To make pickles with a vinegar brine, you’re essentially brining your fruit or vegetables in vinegar, water and salt. Vinegar-brined pickles can be made in glass jars, whether recycled glass jars you were saving for just this purpose, those vintage mason jars you’ve been using for cocktails and salads, or you could invest in a new set of clip-top Kilner jars. One way to make vinegar-brined pickles is by using a home canning technique, such as water bath canning, which we’ll cover in detail in another post.
Pickling by Natural Fermentation
Fermented pickles are preserved primarily with salt – but recipes might also include vinegar. This pickling method is by natural fermentation or wild fermentation, and this is best for fruit or vegetables with a high-water content, as you use salt to draw the water out of the produce to create the brine. This is how sauerkraut is made, for instance. Fermented pickles are super-good for you, containing healthy probiotics and other good bacteria that aren’t in vinegar-brined pickles. You should use a proper fermentation vessel for this method, such as a fermentation crock, or you can invest in a whole new beginner’s fermentation kit.
Vinegar-Brine Pickling Methods
A beginners guide to pickling needs to begin with vinegar-brine pickling as it’s the easiest and best pickling method for novice picklers. In fact, there are three main methods of vinegar-brine pickling, and within those there are various approaches, as different types of produce suit different methods, but let’s keep things simple and focus on the main vinegar-brining techniques:
Quick Pickles, Fresh Pickles, Refrigerator Pickles
The easiest vinegar-brined pickles are known as quick pickles, fresh pickles and refrigerator pickles and this is what we’re focusing on here in our beginners guide to pickling, as success with these will give you the confidence to move onto more complicated pickling methods and eventually fermentation. This is the most basic pickling method, which involves filling sterilised jars with fresh produce and aromatics, pouring a vinegar-brine into the jars to fully submerge the ingredients, then preserving the jars, which you can do using the water bath canning method. Some produce, such as cucumbers and green beans are simply washed well before pickling; other vegetables, such as asparagus and cauliflower should be blanched before pickling; while yet other ingredients, such as beetroots, should be boiled and cooled before preserving. Quick pickles are usually ready within in a few days. The full process is explained step-by-step below.
Produce with high water content is best salt-brined as salting the vegetables before packing them into the pickling jars draws water out of them, allowing the brine and aromatics to penetrate the vegetables more, resulting in a stronger flavour, crunchier texture, and longer shelf life. Simply sprinkle your vegetables with salt or soak them in a salty vinegar-brine to draw the water out. Drain and rinse the produce, then follow the quick-pickling method above, packing your vegetables and aromatics into jars, pouring in a vinegar-brine, then preserving the jars using the water bath canning technique. Eggplant, zucchini and cabbage love this method. This is also the best way to make my grandmother’s dill pickles. Novice picklers should try this method after quick pickles.
Vinegar-Brined Soak and Rinse Method
The vinegar-brine soak and rinse method is similar to salt-brine pickling but with an extra layer to reduce the water content of the vegetables, enabling the veggies to be saturated by your pickling brine, resulting in an even fuller flavour. You’ll need to salt/soak, drain and rinse your produce as you did above, then soak it again in a vinegar brain before draining and rinsing again. Some recipes call for sugar to be added to the salt and vinegar brines. This method is used for a lot of soft fruits, as well as savoury pickles, such as sweet and sour gherkins.
While the three types of pickling above build upon each other, pickling by fermentation is a whole different approach. Fermentation requires a traditional pickling crock or fermentation kit, like those we linked to above, in which you completely submerge the produce in a salt-water brine, using weights to ensure it is submerged at all times and not exposed to oxygen or bad bacteria. During fermentation, salt draws the water out of the produce and the naturally-occurring microbes digest its sugars and form lactic acid and good bacteria, thereby preserving the produce. No additional vinegar or sugar is needed. The duration of fermentation varies according to the recipe but can take days, weeks or months. Sauerkraut and kim-chi are perhaps the best known fermented vegetables. We’ll come back to fermentation in a future post. For now we’re going to focus on the quick pickling vinegar-brining techniques.
Key Pickling Ingredients
The two key pickling ingredients are salt and vinegar, so it’s important that you use the right salt and vinegar for the job.
Salt draws out excess liquid from fruit and vegetables giving them a firm texture while concentrating their flavours. You’ll often see recipes refer to ‘pickling salt’ and ‘canning salt’. This is just pure salt, granulated sodium chloride, which might also be labelled as sea salt or Kosher salt. Do not use the finer grained table salt or iodised salt as this generally contains potassium iodide, dextrose and chemicals such as calcium silicate, sodium silicoaluminate, etc. If you’re not sure what kind of salt you have, stir a little in a glass of water. If the water is a little cloudy, it’s table salt and it will muddy your pickling liquid, while the potassium iodide can cause the pickles to darken in colour.
Vinegar is the other key ingredient in pickling, especially in vinegar-brined pickles, obviously, and you have numerous types of vinegars to choose from: distilled white vinegar is fermented from pure alcohol; cider vinegar is fermented from hard apple cider; wine vinegar is made from wine grapes and is the chose for pickling in Europe, particularly in Italy, Spain and France; malt vinegar or brown vinegar or pickling vinegar is fermented from sprouted barley and is preferred by the English for pickles, such as pickled onion; while rice vinegar is the vinegar that’s traditionally used here in Asia.
The Pickling Process – Step By Step
As this is a beginners guide to pickling, we’re keeping things simple, so let’s go through the process step by step.
Pick Your Vegetable
I found that I was more motivated to embark on a pickling journey by my desire to make those wonderful dill pickles that my baboushka used to make than I was by the idea of pickling. I highly recommend that you begin by imagining what you want to see on your plate than thinking about pickling itself.
Think Outside the (Veggie) Box
Having said that, thinking outside your traditional veggie box is also inspiring. Think about those pink pickled onions or that brilliant purple cabbage you saw on a soft taco in a fabulous magazine spread or on Instagram that you’re dying to try but you simply don’t have the opportunity to eat it anywhere. Can you make it yourself? Other than cucumbers, consider purple cabbage, chillies, capsicums, radishes, green beans, carrots, and green tomatoes.
Procure and Clean Your Glass Jars
We did not have a cupboard full of clean jars when I added pickling to our list of cooking projects. Nor did we have the budget to go and buy half a dozen new mason jars. Instead, I had a collection of used glass jars to recycle and Terence took on the task of sterilising them, washing them over and over and over again to remove the label glue that wouldn’t budge and smeared all over the glass. Whether you’re buying new glass jars or recycling, you’ll need to clean them thoroughly before you sterilise them.
Sterilise Your Glass Jars
Sterilising pickling jars is essential so that the pickles don’t spoil from the development of bad bacteria. Sterilising simply requires heating the jars to the point where no bacteria can survive. It’s best to sterilise them immediately before pickling. While pickling itself is fun, the sterilisation stage is a tad tedious and time-consuming, but it’s important. Also make sure you also sterilise any spoons, funnels or other utensils before you use them. This may be a beginners guide to pickling, but there are a few ways to sterilise pickling jars you should know about:
The Oven Method
One way to sterilise your jars is the oven method. If you’re pickling in jars with rubber seals, you obviously need to remove the rubber seals before popping the jars in the oven. Preheat your oven to 130°C. (It’s not recommended to go higher as your jars could crack). Wash the jars and lids in super-hot soapy water again, rinse them in hot water (don’t dry them), then pop the jars on an oven tray lined with baking paper. While the jars are baking for 15-20 minutes, soak the lids in boiling water for 5-10 minutes. Remove the jars and place them on your clean kitchen bench. We’re talking about pickling here, so you’ll be putting room temperature produce and brine into your jars, so you’ll need to let the jars cool down to room temperature. If you were putting hot jams into the jars, you need to do that while the jars are hot. If you add cold ingredients to hot jars or hot jams or relishes to cold jars, you risk shattering the jars.
The Dishwasher Method
If you’re lucky to have a dishwasher, you can sterilise your pickling jars in a dishwasher on the highest temperature setting. Don’t put other dirty dishes in there at the same time as you could risk contaminating the pickling jars. Do the clean jars on their own. Once again, we’re talking about pickling here, but if you were sterilising jars for jams, then you need to time things so that jams or preserves are ready to be bottled at the end of your rinse cycle. Once again, hot stuff needs to go into hot jars. For pickles, you need to let those jars cool down. While the rubber rings for the Kilner-style jars with clip tops cannot go in the oven, you can pop the rubbers rings in a dishwasher.
The Microwave Method
It is also possible to sterilise pickling jars in a microwave and it’s actually the fastest method. All you need to do is pop your clean jars in the microwave for 45 seconds. Rinse them in hot water first and leave them a little wet. Obviously, you should not microwave the metal lids or the clip tops of your Kilner-style jars. And once again, with pickling you need to let the jars cool down on a kitchen bench, but if you’re bottling hot jams, you can add the jam immediately.
Prepare Your Vegetables
Clean your vegetables thoroughly in clean drinking-quality water. Our tap water comes from ground wells here in Siem Reap, so we can’t use that as it’s probably contaminated, so we use drinking water that we buy in huge plastic bottles (which is apparently not that much better quality) to wash our veggies. If you live in a country with healthy tap water, by all means use that to thoroughly clean your vegetables. Some vegetables require blanching and others should be boiled. You also need to decide how you’re going to preserve them – whole vegetables, chunky coin-shaped slices, cut lengthways, or thinly-sliced matchsticks.
Select Your Aromatics
Salt is essential (see ‘salts’, above) and you’ll need pure sea salt. The experts recommend using 20-40g or about two tablespoons of sea salt per litre of water. But after that what you choose to include in the brine with your vegetables is up to you. If you want to recreate a particular kind of pickle that you’ve had before, as I did with my baboushka’s gherkins, then you need to do some research and follow a recipe. We used this recipe for dill pickles, which looked closest to my grandmother’s gherkins. We’ve included more pickle recipes we like below. If you don’t want to recreate a particular kind of pickle, then you can get creative when it comes to your aromatics – you can use mustard seeds or dill seeds, dill flower heads, black peppercorns, garlic cloves, whole or finely sliced chillies, a few slices of onion or lemon or lime, fresh or dried herbs, ground or whole spices, or root vegetables such as ginger and galangal. Think about how you want to use the pickles and what kind of dishes or cuisine you’re going to use them with.
Prepare Your Brine
For a basic quick pickle, all your need is vinegar and water in equal parts. Some brine recipes will specifically call for rice vinegar, white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and red wine vinegar (see ‘vinegars’, above). To prepare your brine, boil your water and add salt, then let the brine cool to room temperature.
Prepare Your Pickle Jar
Fill your sterilised jar(s) with the vegetables until they reach the top, then add your aromatics, and then add the brine. Pop a cabbage leaf or vine leaf on top as these will help stop your vegetables from floating to the surface, and becoming exposed to air, and will help keep your pickles crisp.
Seal Your Jars and Store
For a super quick pickle of a few days, simply put the lid on tightly and refrigerate the jar and your pickles will be ready in an hour but you could leave them for a few days. For more intense, sour, tangy flavours, the longer you leave your pickles sealed in the jar in the fridge the better, whether it’s a few hours or a few days. For longer fresh pickles or refrigerator pickles, you’ll need to monitor the jars and loosen the lids to allow them to ‘burp’ every few days as the bacteria starts the fermentation process and CO2 builds inside. If you don’t, you’ll find yourself having to clean up a mess. When your brine begins to cloud, release the jar every now and again, then continue to refrigerate your jar after a week or two, which is when the pickles really start to develop.
More Pickling Resources
A fab book for newcomers to pickling, Chesman combines grandma’s pickling know-how with recent thinking to explain classic techniques in simple language for both first-time picklers and dedicated home canners.
DIY Pickling: Step-By-Step Recipes for Fermented, Fresh, and Quick Pickles by Rockridge Press
Another great book for beginner picklers, it covers fundamental pickling techniques, as well as a wide range of pickling projects. There are troubleshooting guides and insider tips and anecdotes from pickling experts, including how to integrate pickles into your cooking.
Features recipes for pickles from all over the world, from quick pickles for the fridge and freezer to ‘put-up pickles’ and canned pickles, from the USA and Europe to Asia and the Middle East, everything from cabbage and radish kimchi to pickled whole watermelons.
This is a good choice for the new pickler who is ready to move onto home canning and preserving, with plenty of step-by-step instruction on canning and fermenting, food safety tips, and recipes for pickles, preserves, sauces, condiments, mustards, and jams.
Focusing on Asian pickling and fermenting, this book has loads of recipes for quick pickles for novice picklers, as well as advanced techniques for more adventurous cooks that go beyond the basic vinegar brine. There are recipes for Korean whole leaf cabbage kimchi, Japanese umeboshi, Indian chutneys, and Chinese preserved vegetables.
An introduction to Japanese tsukemono (pickles), which are an integral part of everyday meals. Often made the day they’re eaten, Japanese pickles are used as side dishes, garnishes and snacks. Every family has their own tsukemono recipes handed down through generations. Tateno shares regional pickling recipes and styles, recipes for pickles, preserved and fermented vegetables, including burdock root, bitter melon, lotus root, and wasabi greens.
We’ll be following up this beginners guide to pickling with some pickling recipes, then we’ll move on to fermentation, so do check back here soon. We’d love to hear about your own pickling experiences.