We never met a pickle we didn’t like. But there’s a lot more to sink your teeth into than just cucumbers—you can pickle anything from onions to carrots to Brussels sprouts. Ready to try it out at home? Read on to learn how to pickle vegetables.
What Is Pickling?
Pickling is a process used to preserve food and extend its shelf life. There are two ways to pickle: with an acidic brine (here, we'll be discussing vinegar-based brines) and by anaerobic fermentation. Vinegar-based pickling is much faster than fermentation; the vinegar's acetic acid kills any microorganisms that could lead to spoilage, consequently preserving the food.
Fermentation, on the other hand, is caused by a chemical reaction between the food's sugars and natural bacteria. If a food is pickled in a saltwater brine or fermented, it's preserved by naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria. Vinegar-based brines are basically just a shortcut for acid production. While fermentation allows the food to maintain most of its nutritional perks, vinegar pickling causes the food to lose much of its nutritional value.
Is Processing Pickles Necessary?
Processing (aka a sterilization process used in canning that calls for boiling the canning jars with and without the food inside) is the only way to guarantee that the pickles won't be spoiled or affected by bacteria, mold or yeast. So, yes, if you're going to make pickles at home to have on hand for the long haul, processing ensures that they'll stay preserved. If you're quick-pickling instead, odds are you'll be consuming the pickles soon after they're made, so you won't really have to sweat them going bad or becoming tainted by bacteria.
What Are Quick-Pickled Vegetables?
The most mouth-puckering homemade pickles are left to marinate in brine for a few days to maximize their flavor. But you can still pickle and eat certain veggies in the same hour if you don’t have a lot of marinating time, depending on their size and how they’re cut. Enter quick-pickled veggies. For instance, whole cucumbers need at least 48 hours to turn acidic, but sliced onions can soak up homemade brine in just 15 minutes if that’s all the time you have. The longer the veggies can soak, the more pickled they’ll be.
The Benefits of Eating Pickled Vegetables
Essentially all fermented vegetables can help improve gut health, but only if they’re made with a saltwater brine. Vinegar, used for quick-pickling, kills most of the healthy bacteria that’s beneficial to gut health. So, while vinegar-pickled vegetables won’t be a cure-all for all your wellness woes, there are still lots of reasons to DIY instead of buying pickles at the supermarket. Processed pickles not only contain possible preservatives, but they can also have higher sodium than homemade pickles. Fresh pickles boast probiotics and less bloat-inducing salt. Denny Waxman, a macrobiotic counselor, says naturally pickled and fermented foods can suppress inflammatory responses to allergies, heart disease and cancer, plus help us develop a healthy, efficient immune response.
Pickled cucumbers specifically are touted as potential stress and anxiety reducers and a potential cure for period cramps, much like probiotic-rich fermented foods like yogurt and kimchi. They’re also hydrating, vitamin-rich (they’re cucumbers, after all) and research from the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows they can help regulate blood sugar spikes, too.
What Veggies Can I Pickle?
A few hours (or better yet, a couple days) in homemade brine can transform fresh veggies into an acidic, salty snack. Here are a few to get you started:
Cucumbers: Kirby cucumbers are our go-to for pickling, but Gherkins or any short cucumber that will fit in a jar work fine, if you’re pickling them whole. Stay away from long English cucumbers. Slicing cucumbers are grown for fresh consumption instead of canning and can result in pickles that are too soft instead of sturdy and crunchy. You may even see specially labeled pickling cucumbers at the grocery store. Pickle them whole or slice them into chips or spears.
Onions: Red and pearl onions are both popular choices. Red onions go from mild and sweet to refreshing, tangy and crisp (and neon pink) when pickled. Cut them into thin strips or rings so they’re easy to fish out of the jar later. Pearl onions are soft and sweet raw but turn mellow and umami-rich post-pickling. Those you can pickle whole.
Radishes: Another hot-pink topper that makes any dish look better. Slice them into thin coins before pickling, or pack them into the jar whole if they’re small enough.
Jalapeños: Instead of tasting straight-up hot like fresh jalapeño peppers, pickled jalapeños are equal parts sour and spicy. Cut them into rounds or halves or pickle them whole, depending on how you’re going to use or eat them. Banana peppers are also a must for heat lovers.
Beets: Slice them into quarters or rounds or leave them whole (as long as they’re small enough to pack into the jar). Since they're tough when raw, boil them in a Dutch oven before immersing them in the brine.
Cabbage: Let these leafy shreds ferment in seasoned brine for three to ten days and bam: You’ve got sauerkraut.
Cauliflower: Chop it into small florets so they can be packed tightly into the jar.
Green beans: There's no need to cook the beans (or even chop them) before pickling. Their crispness will be doubly refreshing once they're bursting with the zingy flavor of a vinegar brine.
Asparagus: Want to make asparagus season last (almost) forever? Preserve the spears with a little extra salt in the brine, so they maintain their firm, crisp texture.
Peaches: Yup, you read that right. Their natural sweetness is just the foil for punchy vinegar. Serve them over ice cream, use them in sushi, serve them in place of a pickle spear with a sandwich or nosh on them solo.
How Do I Make Pickling Brine?
In general, pickling brine should be around two parts vinegar and one part water. You’re free to adjust to your taste, but don’t skimp *too* much on the vinegar and salt, since they’re what preserve and pickle the vegetables in the first place. You can use any pale vinegar from white wine to rice to apple cider. Just know that the type will affect the intensity of the brine. For instance, white vinegar will be harsh and strong, so you may need to add more water. But if you’re a sucker for the pucker, you may not need to adjust (or include any water) at all. It all comes down to personal preference and the ingredients you have on hand.
Speaking of personal preference, there are a ton of herbs, spices and additional ingredients that you can play with to customize homemade pickled vegetables. Here are a few popular choices that you might have in your kitchen right now:
Crushed red-pepper flakes
There are various sweeteners to use in place of sugar too, like honey or maple syrup.
How to Make Quick Pickles
This recipe fits a heat-safe quart jar or two pint jars. We used Kirby cukes, but feel free to try the same brine on whatever veggies you have. Once you take your first cold, crunchy bite, you’ll never go back to store-bought pickles again.
12 Kirby cucumbers
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons mustard seeds
1 sprig fresh dill
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1¼ cups water
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
Tightly pack the cucumbers into a heat-safe jar. If you’re quick-pickling, slice them into coins or spears first so they can soak up as much brine as possible. Add the garlic, mustard seeds and dill.
In a small pot, bring the vinegar, water, salt and sugar to a boil over medium-high heat. If you’re really pressed for time, briefly boil the cucumbers in the brine.
Pour the brine over the cucumbers and seal the jar. Let them marinate for as long as you can. If you do have time, refrigerate the jar for at least two days and up to two weeks before opening for best results.