Cucumbers are so popular as a pickled vegetable that I have heard several gardeners speak of “planting pickles.” I try to make a couple of batches of cucumber dill pickles every summer, but I also like to put by a diverse selection of pickled vegetables from the garden. In addition to bringing surprising colors, flavors and textures to salads and sandwiches, small jars of pickled carrots, dilly beans, squash, turnips or asparagus make good use of small overruns from the garden.
Most of my pickled vegetables are small batches made from only four cups or so of cut vegetables, canned in half-pint canning jars. In addition to being easy to manage, small batches of pickled vegetables are a practical solution for cosmetically flawed vegetables that won’t store well, such as carrots with insect damage near their tops, or turnips that cracked after a heavy rain. When cleaned, trimmed and cut into uniform pieces, the imperfections never show in the finished pickles.
1. Start with a Salt Soak
The first step in making pickled vegetables is to allow the clean, cut vegetables to soak in salt or a strong saltwater solution for at least 3 hours, or sometimes overnight. As the vegetables swim in salt, some moisture is drawn from the tissues, which helps to preserve crisp texture through the pickling process. I use sea salt, and then rinse the vegetables in cold water several times to remove excess salt when the soaking time is up. The rinsed vegetables drip in the colander while I make the pickling brine.
2. Make a Vinegar Brine
The liquid in canned pickles is comprised of vinegar, sugar and sometimes water, along with subtle spicy flavors that give pickles their zip. You can use either clear distilled vinegar or amber-colored cider vinegar, depending on the results you want. I veer toward distilled vinegar for pickled carrots, asparagus, and snap beans in the interest of clear colors, but opt for cider vinegar to help pickled zucchini relish look appetizingly rustic.
Recipes vary in whether or not water is added to the vinegar brine, with thick sweet relishes and chutneys using no water at all. Note that water can never exceed the same measure of vinegar and give safe results. For example, pickled snap beans with dill, called dilly beans, are done up in a brine that is half water and half vinegar, but that is the limit for diluting vinegar for any pickled vegetable.
Choosing spices for the brine is fun, and I often start with a commercial mixture of pickling spices from the health food store, and add and subtract from its mélange of peppercorns, allspice berries, cinnamon sticks, cloves, bay leaves, dill and mustard seeds. You also can use lemon or orange rind or hot peppers to flavor your brine. I place my chosen spices in a cheesecloth pouch tied up with string, and let it bob about in the simmering brine while I prepare the jars. At this point the kitchen smells heavenly.
3. Prepare and Fill Pickling Jars
After washing them squeaky clean, I place my canning jars in a baking pan and keep them in a warm oven. Meanwhile, I might peel a garlic clove for each one, or trim grape or basil leaves to snug into the jar bottoms. The natural tannins in grape leaves are said to enhance crispness in pickled vegetables, or you can use a well-placed basil leaf as a nest for a sprig of dill or strip of pepper. A chopstick is the perfect tool for arranging these or other adornments in warm jars.
Back to the brine, from which the spice bag can now be removed and composted. Vegetables that are cut into small pieces can be added to the brine and brought back to a simmer, which softens them slightly and helps prevent air bubbles in the jars. Long, shapely vegetables such as carrot sticks, snap beans, or asparagus spears can be tightly packed into the warm jars by hand, and then covered with hot brine before the jars are filled and processed.
After filling, I use damp paper towels followed by a wipe with a dry paper towel to double-check the cleanliness of the jar rims.
4. Process Your Pickles
The pickled vegetables must be processed to insure a good seal, which can be done in a water bath or steam canner. When working with little half-pint jars, you often can use a deep pot as a water bath canner. Any pot deep enough to cover the tops of the jars with simmering water will do. Processing the jars for 10 minutes at barely boiling temperatures heats them enough to sterilize the pickled vegetables and trigger the seals to pop into place as the jars cool.
It’s customary to give pickles a few weeks in cool storage to develop their full flavors, but one of the great things about pickled vegetables is that there is no rush to eat them. Protected from heat and light in a cool, dark cabinet, your pickled vegetables will be ready when you are.