The last jar of pickles I bought at the grocery store was from a well-known national brand. The label had the words “artisan recipe” and maybe even “farmers market” as well. I brought them home to top a cheeseburger or Cubano or something, but I vividly recall the first bite of those pickles: a squishy, soggy mess.
Reader, I threw them in the garbage and I’ve never looked back. It’s just too easy, and even less expensive, to make good pickles at home.
And I’m not talking about canning pickles. Despite being a somewhat advanced home cook, I’ve never once gone through the rigamarole of gathering mason jars, sterilizing, blanching, simmering, jostling to release the air bubbles, et cetera, ad infinitum. I even have the equipment—the wire basket, the cauldron, the special jar tongs—all gathering dust in my garage.
Here’s why: a combination of equal parts water and vinegar, plus a day or two in the fridge, will easily turn all your veggies into a tip-top pickle.
It’s dead simple. Use any vinegar you like, but don’t bother wasting the fancy stuff. Regular old white distilled and apple cider vinegar are the only two I use. Here are the rest of the ingredients to complete your brine:
Salt: I start with one heaping teaspoon (call it a half tablespoon) of salt per cup of liquid (that’s ½ cup each water and vinegar.) Sometimes, especially with cucumber pickles, I’ll add the salt directly to the veggies, let them sit for an hour in the fridge, rinse them, then pour over the remainder of the brine. Mostly, though, I add it straight to the liquid.
Sugar: This depends on personal taste and the kind of pickle you’re making. Sweet bread-and-butter pickles might take a tablespoon per cup of liquid. Tart and bracing dilly beans might require only a pinch or two. Your first time, start with equal amounts of salt and sugar, and then adjust according to your tastes.
Garlic: Especially with cucumbers, but there’s nary a fridge pickle that a crushed clove of garlic won’t improve.
Chiles: A dried arbol chile will give the pickle a nice mild heat. So will crushed red chile flakes.
Other flavors: My mother-in-law recently gave me a jar of crystallized ginger. What on earth to do with that? I popped a few pebbles into a brine with slices of daikon radish and it was super. Do you have other strange spices sitting in your cabinet? Give them a whirl.
To Simmer or Not to Simmer?
I began my home pickling routine by heating the brine until the sugar and salt dissolved. You can absolutely do that, but lately, I’ve just been throwing everything in a jar, giving it a good shake, and leaving it be. I haven’t noticed a difference.
Now for the fun part: which vegetables to pickle? Any sturdy or fibrous veggie will do. Here are my favorites:
I prefer the fleshier English cucumbers for pickling. The regular ones also work fine (just don’t slice them super-thin. Aim for about 3/16”.) The two variations in my regular routine are dills (using white vinegar, a combination of fresh and dried dill, and garlic) and bread-and-butter (apple cider vinegar, a good dose of sugar, mustard seeds, garlic, a dried chile, and a pinch of turmeric.)
Pickled reds are a staple in my fridge. They go on everything: tacos, rice bowls, sandwiches, salads. They’re especially fond of pork or cured meats. Do a Lyonnaise cut on the onion, use apple cider vinegar, and enjoy the sight of that bright pink brine every time you open your fridge.
Scallions / Ramps
These are killer in dips. Use them in place of the onions or chives in any recipe for sour cream and onion dip. Chop them up fine and add them (with a spoonful of the brine) to any recipe for pimento cheese.
Take the cue from Peter Piper. Slice up rings of banana, wax, or Fresno peppers. Use apple cider vinegar, add some more heat if it’s a mild pepper. Put them on a frozen pepperoni pizza midway through baking. You’re welcome.
Green Beans / Asparagus
Blanch these in boiling water for a literal hot second or two so they retain their color. Use white vinegar and lots of herbs.
Especially watermelon and daikon radish, but the plain old reds work great, too. Bonus: box grate some peeled carrots and daikon and pickle them together for a slaw-like mix that’s great on sandwiches (think banh mi) or a rice bowl with marinated steak.
Cut the bulb in half and slice into long shreds. Brine it with white vinegar, a bunch of its own fronds, and some dried herbs de Provence.