With my recent forays in Cubano and Pickled Hot Dogs, I thought it only prudent to finally get into making some pickles myself! Well, that and the giant load of cucumbers my sister dropped on me with the recent co-op bag.
It was also a good way to use up these leftover Garlic Scapes I had from the previous adventure; I swear these things are just MADE for pickling. Such a strong, intense and delicious flavor, but you can’t really keep it through cooking; not to mention their interesting little texture.
Start with actual vegetables; sliced the cucumber to a sorta-thin, sorta-thick pickle slices with a knife. If you have one, a mandolin or other set blade-in-board is great for getting something super-thin, or just keeping consistency. As you’ll see later, I also thought it’d be fun to cut a few spears just for the heck of it, see how they turned out. The scapes just got a few simple cuts; about 1-2” long.
Once these are prepped and ready, sitting in whatever container or jar one has or prefers (the best of these should probably be done in a jar or other highly sealed device, with a whole list of sanitary procedures and whatever; but for the simple at-home pickle, whatever will work), we can get to the actual pickle.
Now, there are recipes all over the net for thousands of different pickles, and personally, I almost never go off any of them. And I’m not gonna try and give you any “special recipe” to go along with all the other “special recipes” out there. For those who want to make some nice, simple pickles from whatever you have at home, all that you need to know about is the Components. Ultimately, the final balance of ANY pickling liquid will be determined by what one is trying to pickle and what sort of flavor one wants out of it.
First and most important is Vinegar: this provides the all-important tangy, sharp qualities that make a pickle a pickle and not a brine or anything else. Generally speaking, one is using very simple, subtly flavored vinegars for it; either White Wine, Rice, or Apple Cider vinegar. IF one wants to use things like Red Wine, Sherry, Balsamic, etc, then they’re usually best added as a small part, either in tandem with others or as the base if one goes for a highly diluted pickle. That’s the second thing about the vinegar aspect; one can go from using JUST vinegar for their liquid or dilute with water, for those times they want such a sharp flavor (delicate ingredients). I myself used Rice and some White vinegar (the only ones I had in the pantry!) with about an equal proportion of Water to bulk up (another use for it, when you don’t have enough).
Seasoning, salt and pepper, doesn’t play any more important role than in other dishes; unless one is in the rare scenario where they WANT a salty cucumber pickle or something, only use in simple pinches. Only thing to note is it’s better using the black pepperCORNS than just grinding it.
If anything, Sugar is a bigger key; though we’re most used to the simple, bone-dry pickles of both popular and mass-produced variety, the sweetness in sugar can help round out and enrichen the flavors and mouthfeel of any pickled item. I always make sure to get some in mine, just that extra aspect on the palette is more pleasing to me vs the “just acid and spices” of a sugarless mix. And once again, the amount is gonna be determined by preferred style, as well as what one’s balance of vinegar and flavors are. I will say it’s really nice getting a lot when doing fruit pickles; sort of like a little treat to add to desserts.
The last, and just as important, component to flavor is, of course, the actual Spices, Herbs, and Aromatics used. These can be, well, basically anything you want; can use as few as only 1-2 things to flavor or as many as 40 (warning, do not attempt 40 unless a seasoned pickle and flavor specialist!). Important to note, this is where one cranks out their WHOLE spices; avoid the grinds and powders as much as you can, using only in those situations where you HAVE to have that one flavor and don’t have anything except (I myself always get a bit of mustard into mine, but didn’t have any of the seeds this time…). One can then put these in as-is, or toast those spices beforehand; always a good bet if one’s spice mix looks like you’re trying to make your own Garam Masala.
Now, where the spices can, and should, simply be in the pickle mix for the entire cooking process (will get to that later), herbs are a different matter. Highly delicate, I probably wouldn’t even suggest using leaves; save those for food, and grab the flavorful but other-wise impractical stems for infusion. I myself had a whole bunch of parsley and basil stems leftover from previous use. Best put it in once one’s done with the boiling, either letting them steep briefly on their own (what I did) or having the stems stay in with the vegetables being pickled.
I myself used a very basic but old favorite; a few bay leaves, some black peppercorns, and mustard (again, wanted seeds, but had to use something different). Was going to also get some red pepper flakes, also a good pickle standby, but forgot; I would have normally also put in some Garlic Slices, but since I was doing the scapes anyway I figured no need.. And, since I was doing more of a bread-butter-like fella, one last, often not-well-known component; Turmeric. It adds an interesting little rich component to this classic style.
Well, everything is mixed together (save herbs and the veggies) and boiled until all seasoning particles are dissolved, and long enough for flavors to infuse if need be. At this point it is VERY important to be tasting, adjusting, making sure one gets the flavor they want; though be careful, that hot vinegar can be quite pungent, so keep away from the nose!
Once we get things where we want, we get to consider the first of the Two important non-mix considerations: Temperature. We could add this pickle right now, after the boil, while it’s still hot, or we could let it cool down completely (even put in the fridge to get cold), and everything in between. This is usually determined by two things: what you’re pickling, and when you need it.
If you need the pickle fast and/or you have something a little tougher, crunchy, big… usually certain veggies… basically could use a little “cooking” action to soften its structure, then go for Hot. This can make a pickle that’s ready in a day or two at the most; one could even make an “instant pickle” of sorts by having the veggies in the mix while it’s boiling.
On the other extreme, if you want to “properly” pickle for a longer time (don’t ask me what happens molecularly, I don’t really know, and don’t feel like researching, haha) and/or have more delicate items, ESPECIALLY if doing this with Fruit, then go room temp or cold. This ties in to the other factor, Time; generally speaking, those pickles that become ready in only a day are good, though a little rougher than if they were allowed to sit for at least a week.
In a side note, I’m not sure what the call is for whole/big items; they need LONG times, though I’m not sure if they should get started with heat or not. I’d say start off with cooler pickles if you want to try whole cucumber pickles or whatever; if anything, it helps preserve color.
Letting mine cool down, I took the herbs out and poured it over my filled container of prepared cucumbers. Not only should this come to the top, we need to now make sure that the veggies STAY UNDER the pickle; in a jar, this is simply done by filling to the top, the seal is good enough that that’s all we need. For everything else, there are tiny plates and bowls! Great for covering most of what we need.
After letting it sit for a day, or a week (mine), or whenever, we now have a pickle ready to be eaten as-is or piled onto whatever sandwich, hot dog, soup, or whatever you want; or fried! So tasty fried.
I’d normally finish with some awkwardly-reached-for paragraph styled in the hope that it makes me look at least semi-professional, but I am so not done with this pickle thing! Stay tuned for part 2 of my Pickle post when I tackle Sauerkraut! (… it’s gonna be a while…)