A Primer on Pickling

Laura McMullen

When Linda Ziedrich's 5-year-old son took a liking to pickled cucumbers, she went from dabbling in pickling to becoming a full-fledged enthusiast. Cue her book "The Joy of Pickling," which, at the time of publishing, was one of the few guides out there on the subject. Now, the book is in its second edition, pickling is a full-blown trend with plenty of literature on the craft and Ziedrich's oldest son, to whom she regularly gives pickled cucumbers, is nearing age 30.

Ziedrich's interest in pickling predates its mention in the 2013 National Restaurant Association food trend forecast by a few decades. She suspects pickling has become popular along with the organic, local food trend. "And of course, there's nothing more local than your own backyard," she says, adding that the poor economy may have also encouraged more home-growing, which is often cheaper than buying produce from the store. For those who want to give pickling a try, the United States Department of Agriculture provides a very specific, 35-page guide called "Preparing and Canning Fermented Foods and Vegetables." The National Center for Home Food Preservation also has in-depth pickling information and recipes.

But for the basics, we turn to Ziedrich, who was pickling long before it was cool. Her responses have been edited.

What exactly is pickling?

To pickle is just to preserve food with acid, and there are various ways to get that acid. The two most common ways in the West are through fermentation and vinegar. With vinegar, that's of course fermentation, too, because you make the grapes into wine (that's one stage of fermentation), and then you make the wine into vinegar (that's another stage of fermentation), and then the vinegar is ready to go. So you put the vegetables in that, and that's called a quick pickle.

With fermentation, you take raw vegetables and wash them, but not too much because there's bacteria on them that produce acid. Then you put those vegetables in water with some salt to help control the fermentation, and then within either a few days or a couple of months, you have a pickle that's fermented to your taste. To know how long the process should take, I would definitely advise looking at a recipe.

What kinds of recipes or tips would you give to beginners?

Well, a lot of people are really afraid of canning, and there are good reasons for that. You can make pickles without canning with a boiling water bath. Put the seasoning in the vinegar, and heat the vinegar in the water. With these, because they'll be in the fridge, use two-parts water to one-part vinegar. Heat the spices with the vinegar, and pour it over the vegetables. It's hard to go wrong with these quick pickles.

I think many of us have a narrow view of pickling and see "pickles" only as pickled cucumbers. What are some of your other favorite pickled foods these days?

I still pickle dilly beans every year, which are great to have on hand as an appetizer before dinner. I'll open a jar while I'm cooking, and they're usually gone in about five minutes. I don't even get a chance to eat any. It's just a pickle that everyone seems to like. I also like pickled fruits like pears and plums. And I still ferment cucumbers every year, and most of those still go to my oldest son and his friends.