Pickle principles

If eyes are windows into the soul, pickle jars are windows of the pantry. Suspended behind clear glass, the bright contents of a pickle jar are a beautiful promise of nutrition in the bank and colorful wintertime meals.

The jars, in their various sizes, lend themselves to monetization, or at least bartering. You can trade two quarts of “Ari-style” pickles for a pack of frozen venison bratwursts in some circles. When a food swapper recently used that label, she was referring to a mix of carrots and red jalapenos that was my calling card at potlucks back in the day. It’s a combination loosely modeled on Mexican-style pickles found in the salsa bars of many southern restaurants, and when done right it’s a winner.

But if I were to reflect on my pickling career (a big “were,” to be sure) I would probably say that it’s my brine, more than any combination of items that I may cram into a jar, that defines my style. This is what people for text me for late at night, as they contemplate a large cauliflower in the fridge, or a box of baby cucumbers they bought at the farmers market on a whim.

Here is what I text back to my friend VD, who just the other day found herself staring down a large bowl of string beans.

“50/50 mix of vinegar and water; vinegar portion is 1/2 cider and 1/2 white, w/sugar to taste. Per jar: 1 tsp salt and 1 tbs mustard seed. Dill, if you nasty.”

That information, in the hands of a competent pickler, is the blueprint for my pickles. The resulting brine can convert any suitable vegetable or fruit into an Ari-style pickle. There will be tweaks, of course. Pickling spices in the beets. Dill heads for the cucumbers and beans, if you wish.

The best pickles result from a perfect storm of little things done right that add up to greatness. The produce must be picked in the cool of the morning and pickled that day. The jar’s contents must be packed in a way that fills space efficiently and nothing is crushed. The seeds and salt must be put in first so they don’t float to the top and inhibit the seal. The vinegar must be brought to a boil but not rolled. The grape leaf must be folded like an origami swan.

VD knows this stuff, more or less. She’s a pickler. But she and others might still benefit from an expanded version of the text I sent her, a deep dive into the secret messages hidden between the lines, with fleshed-out thoughts and annotations on the text like it’s some line from Finnegan’s Wake. This list is more of a skeleton key than a set of directions, and assumes basic canning knowledge, most of which can be obtained by reading the directions on a box of jars or lids.

Sterilization: The dishwasher rocks this.

Calculating brine volume: Pack a jar, minus the mustard seeds and salt, and fill the jar with water. Pour the water into a measuring cup. Multiply that volume by the number of jars. That is your total brine volume. Add a cup extra if you’re scared to run out.

White vinegar: One can use sherry or white balsamic, which are spectacular, but old-fashioned white vinegar, whatever it is, works fine too.

Sugar “to taste”: As the water and vinegar, aka “the brine,” is heating up, add sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until it is just sweet enough to take the edge off of vinegar. Or add a ton and call them sweet pickles.

Salt “to taste”: I like a teaspoon in each jar for a baseline of flavor and a bit of preservative. Some people know how much salt they like, and should add accordingly. Adding zero is an option as well.

Produce: Doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it’s fresh. Specifically: fleshy peppers, carrots, cauliflower, beans, asparagus, watermelon rind (with mad amounts of spices), radishes, kohlrabi, mushrooms, okra, green tomatoes and kale stems, not to mention eggs and pigs’ feet (for which my style of brine does not apply).

Size: Large things, like big carrots, peppers or cucumbers, need to be cut into sizes that pack reasonably into jars. Small cucumbers, peppers and carrots that pack nicely can go in whole.

The grape leaf: People have been putting alum powder in their pickles to keep them crispy forever. And have been using grape leaves a few millennia longer. Many county extension agents, those noble, apolitical garden angels, are now shunning the use of hydrated potassium aluminium sulfate. Some recommend lime powder or calcium chloride instead, or this hugely important trick for cucumber pickles. Fully remove the blossom ends, the remnants of which contain an enzyme, pectinase, which will speed the softening of pickles in the jar. And add a grape leaf, which doesn’t have to be folded like an origami swan.

Mustard seeds: I like a mix of black and yellow. Do they do anything besides look pretty at the bottom of the jar? Maybe. Can you grind them into mustard when the pickles are gone? Yes.

Garlic clove: A lot of people add one or two. If you want to eat some pickled garlic, go for it. And it might make the pickles taste better. See: Mustard Seeds.

Processing: Most recipes, for liability reasons, call for 10 minutes in a water bath. And I shall do the same. At home, when nobody is looking, I do a “hot pack,” where I pour the hot brine into the jar of pickles and screw the rings and lids on. Because the more you cook your pickles, the more soggy they will be. I do cook my pickled beets because I want them a little soft.

With all of this being said about the finer points of pickling, all rules-and bets-are off for fridge pickles. Fresh produce or not. Sterilized jars or not. Fresh brine, or recycled juice from a previous pickle jar. Random leaves like oregano or tarragon, or not.

Bottom line: cover vegetables with flavored vinegar in the fridge. “Just put the damn thongs in the fridge and don’t worry about it,” I recently texted, unbothered even by typos. But fridge pickles are not just an excuse for being half-assed. It’s a way to tweak your recipes, decide what you and the family like, and craft your future.

Since I’ve basically got the vinegar pickle thing mastered, my next frontier is fermentation pickles. Also known as letting things kind of rot in jars, but a way that’s safe and somehow tasty. It sounds sloppy and stinky, aka just my style.