Set the Table with Pickles
By: Jesse Natha
If you garden or own a membership in a CSA, you know high summer through autumn as the time of year when everything explodes, and the piles of produce accumulating on kitchen counters, mudroom floors, erupting from crisper drawers, and occupying idle porch swings have begun to impede normal daily routine. If you haven’t done it yet, now is the time to join one of civilizations’ great movements—one that spans geography and time, defines cultures, and secures the health and prosperity of humankind through another season. It is time to make pickles.
Here in the United States, the word “pickle” is virtually synonymous with the deep green, bumpy form of the cucumber. It became firmly planted both literally, across all of what is now Brooklyn, but also figuratively in the American culinary psyche, as the prevailing pickle in the continent by successive waves of European immigrants from the 17th through 20th centuries. Across the world, however, the pickle spectrum is vast and varied. Fundamental to Japanese cuisine are takuan, a withered, bright yellow, pickled daikon; narazuke, vegetables pickled in sake lees for several years until they reach an earthy dark brown; and gari, the pink pickled ginger we’ve all seen accompanying our sushi. Korean cuisine is defined by kimchi in its many varieties; Scandinavia by its pickled herring. An array of pickles and chutneys feature everything from green mango to gooseberries alongside Indian meals, while preserved lemons star in North African dishes.
Let’s stop there, though the list goes on, with every world cuisine featuring some form of pickle as a means of preserving critical nutrients for long periods of time without refrigeration. At their most essential, this array shares the central defining quality of a pickle: a fresh food that has been placed in a high-acid environment as a means of deterring spoilage-causing microbes. The happy side effect of this process is that these high-acid environments produce foods whose fresh flavors are transformed into powerfully tart, bright bombs of deliciousness that enliven what can be otherwise bland, monotonous meals in the long winter months.
While creative fermentation has been a staple of food preservation for centuries, it has recently exploded in Vermont’s restaurants. Elaborate pickle plates are now standard fare on starter menus, featuring a selection of house-made pickles that range from the classic green beans and cukes to tiny, tapered baby carrots and chili-flecked kimchi. ArtsRiot in Burlington’s South End offers a day-glow pink “sauer egg” and a diminutive “fire cracker weenie” on theirs, in what feels like a wry callout to the murky gallon jars of pickled eggs and sausages found at dive bars everywhere. Even the Bloody Mary at Burlington’s Monarch & the Milkweed is topped with a skewer of pickled veggies substantial enough to count as a full-on appetizer.
To learn more about the path from freshly picked to freshly pickled, I spoke with Vermont cookbook author and food-preservation expert Andrea Chesman, whose 2012 book The Pickled Pantry, From Apples to Zucchini, 150 Recipes for Pickles, Relishes, Chutneys & More is an indispensable guide to pickling that goes way beyond the cucumber.
Andrea describes the two primary means of creating the necessary acidic environment for pickling. The first, lacto-fermentation, is ancient, having been in practice at least since the Mesopotamians first cultivated food. Fermentation is achieved by mixing salt with whole or prepared vegetables, which draws the liquid out of the vegetables to create a brine that fully covers them. Naturally occurring bacteria on the surface of the vegetables thrive and multiply in this briny environment, and the lactic acid they produce discourages undesirable bacteria and preserves the food. With larger, whole fruits and vegetables like cucumbers that don’t expel much moisture, a saltwater brine is used instead and the process continues from there.
The second method has been around for a much shorter time, increasing in ease and popularity after 1858 when John Mason patented his eponymous glass jar. This simpler method is achieved by packing the fruit or vegetable in an already-acidic medium, usually vinegar, and heat-treating the packed jars in a hot-water or steam canner to make them shelf stable. These are the ubiquitous pickles of roadside stands and farmers’ markets, and they last for years in farmhouse basements and, once opened, the condiment section of refrigerator doors.
For the new or stymied pickler, Andrea has some tips and some warnings about both approaches. While it’s incredibly satisfying to put the gorgeous, massive antique crock you just found at an estate sale to good use, she warns that “Making it in a big crock, opening frequently to see how it’s going, and introducing airborne yeast and mold, you’ll end up with a skunky batch.” Her recommendation is to employ glass jars, whose transparency eases one’s curiosity and which are unlikely to conceal small cracks that can lead to failures. Fermented pickles are “an act of faith and patience,” she says. For best results, give them time and let them do their thing uninterrupted.
Andrea’s primary concern when making vinegar-based pickles is the crispness of the final product. She highly recommends adding “Ball Pickle Crisp” granules, which are pure calcium chloride, available wherever canning supplies are sold. She also stresses the importance of using absolutely fresh produce at the peak of its season—even if it means processing a jar or two at a time rather than gradually amassing a mighty batch. Even still, title of her book notwithstanding, Andrea says, “You will never make a crisp pickle out of a zucchini. There’s just no reason to pickle a zucchini.”
The only other vegetable she steers clear from pickling is ripe tomatoes; they don’t hold up well, and she suggests using those for a jam instead. She highly recommends pickling cauliflower, and she has even had delicious results from garlic scapes and ramps. There is almost endless opportunity for creativity in flavor, combination, and form. Mixed pickles made from whatever assortment of vegetables ripened in the garden or came in your share today can be the genesis of your new secret recipes.
Indeed, even in today’s world of grocery shelves stocked with fresh greens in January and jars of exotic relishes from every part of the world, we still need to do something with all those cabbages, carrots, and green beans. “All food trends are cyclical,” Andrea says. “But I don’t think fermenting vegetables is going to go away at all. It transforms into something so delicious you can’t live without it.”