Pickles: how to make a proper pickle

by Tom Moggach

Credit: Story restaurant

 Pickling is an ancient process, loved by chefs and gardeners who are keen to preserve the fleeting delights of their seasonal fruit and veg.

Once condemned to the footnotes of gastronomy, the humble pickle has now become the epitome of foodie chic.

Heston Blumenthal, for example, serves up pickled dulse and lovage with a starter at his sell-out restaurant, Dinner.

Chef-of-the-moment Tom Sellers is a pickle fanatic, using the technique to capture the essence of everything from nasturtiums to strawberries at his new venture, Story.

 But for most of us, the truth is that the various styles of pickling are often woefully misunderstood. So here’s the low-down on how to pickle properly.

 Quick or slow?

For a start, it’s absolutely vital to make the distinction between the two main approaches to pickling – quick and slow.

Quick pickling (also called ‘fridge pickles’ in the USA), is used to boost texture and flavour, but food pickled in this way won’t keep long.

The slower and more traditional (at least here in the UK) style of of pickling – think jars of pickled onions – is designed for long-term storage, out of the fridge.

japanese pickled daikon px

Credit:I Believe I Can Fry

If you ask me, by far the most interesting are the quick pickles – these are made using a highly versatile technique and take just a few minutes to prepare. 

With this process, you are aiming to add crunch, extra flavour and a zip of acidity to your fruits, vegetables or other ingredients.

Ceviche, for example, is a classic example. This well-known Peruvian dish of raw fish, ‘cooked’ in lime or lemon juice alongside red onion, chilli and fresh coriander, is a marvellous way of adding a new dimension to basic ingredients: rubbed-in salt firms up the fish flesh, before the acidity of the citrus juice cures and adds a wonderful kick.

In Japanese restaurants, too, you’re often served small dishes of quick pickles, such as cucumber or daikon- Japanese radish, to complement your meal. 

Getting into a quick pickle

So here are the bare bones of a simple quick pickling technique: gently warm white wine vinegar (which has a neutral taste); stir in granulated sugar until dissolved; allow the liquid to cool and then pour it over sliced vegetables such as radish, cucumber or carrot.

Credit: Miss Shari

Credit: Miss Shari

 Quick pickles like this can be eaten over the following few days; use your instincts to decide when they are past their best.

 Of course, these steps above are just the skeleton of a full recipe. For example, you can add all manner of spices during the heating stage, and leafy herbs such as tarragon or mint once the mixture has cooled.

 You’ll find plenty of further examples if you search the web – try http://food52.com/blog/7098-quick-pickling-101#   or http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/blog/whole-story/quick-guide-quick-pickles for starters.


In her latest book “Food you can’t say no to”, cookery writer Tamasin Day-Lewis suggests a terrific quick cucumber pickle to pair with mackerel: peel, de-seed and slice a cucumber; mix 2tbsp of white wine vinegar with 1-2tsp of unrefined granulated sugar; season with finely chopped tarragon leaves, salt, pepper, grated lime zest and 1-2tsp of lime juice; taste and balance sweetness and acidity; mix and serve.

 The next refinement with quick pickles is to decide if you want to use the pickling liquid when hot to slightly cook your produce.

 If you pour hot vinegar over matchsticks of carrot, for example, it will slightly cook and soften the vegetable. To soften further, you can actually simmer the carrot in the vinegar first.

 “[It] depends on what you’re pickling,” explains Tom Sellers, who uses a hot pickling liquid for a dish of beetroot, raspberry and horseradish. “With fruit, we tend to do it cold as it’s porous. You want it to taste fresh, not stewed.”

Note that you can also dilute the pickling liquid down with water if it is too sharp and acidic. But this also reduces the pickling effect, and should certainly not be used when making slower pickles designed for storage.

Getting slowly pickled

Traditional slow pickling, as evoked by jars of pickled gherkins, is essentially a more elaborate version of quick pickles.

pickles - slow px

Credit: dierken

You make the pickling liquid in exactly the same way as for quick pickles –dissolving the sugar in the vinegar over a low heat and adding spices. But you must also this time sterilize your jars first to prevent the build up of bacteria and other cultures that might spoil your produce in the months ahead.

One straightforward sterilization method is to put the washed jars through your dishwasher’s hot cycle and separately boil the lids.

You then pack the fruit or vegetables into your jars and pour the liquid right to the top to exclude as much air as you can. Check for air bubbles before screwing on the lids.

Variations on the theme

Once you are in the swing of pickling, remember that there is no end to the variations you can try. In Japan, for example, vinegar is seldom used as a pickling agent: salt, miso, or the lees of sake are often used.

Tom Sellers is trying other agents. “We’re starting to look at pickling things in whey. There’s a natural acidity in lactose.”

The way you use salt, too, can make a huge difference to texture. For example, if you sprinkle fine sea salt over sliced cucumbers or radishes, it will draw out much of the water. ‘Wet brining’ achieves a similar effect with a salt and water solution.

As Sellers is keen to stress, pickling is not difficult. “[It’s] a rather simple process – not to be overcomplicated. A lot of it is trial and error.”

“We use [pickling] as a vehicle to build something,” he adds. “It’s the first stage.” In his ten-course tasting menu, for example, a dish of heritage potato and broad beans is served with a classic beurre blanc sauce, with dandelion-infused vinegar for extra flavour – simple yet sublime.  

 Tom Moggach is author of ‘The Urban Kitchen Gardener: Growing & Cooking in the City’ (Kyle Books).


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