For many years pickles had something of an image problem. They were seen as a bit old-hat, a bit boring, and a bit back-of-the-cupboard-next-to-the-Bovril. But in recent years pickles have undergone a quite incredible renaissance and they are now viewed as the very epitome of culinary cool along with all sorts of other fermented foods like Kimchi and Kombacha.

The history of pickling goes back over 4,000 years to the time of the ancient Mesopotamians. Since then, pickles have changed their image more times than David Bowie – from near mythic cure-all food to humble cheese side-kick. 

Roman emperors, including Caesar, fed pickles to troops in order to improve their physical and spiritual strength, and Cleopatra apparently attributed her own beauty to a steady diet of the fermented food.

Nowadays you are just as likely to find pickles delicately augmenting a dish in a five star restaurant as perking up your lunchtime ham sandwich. Where-ever you encounter them, pickles offer a fresh, acidic bite, which adds a satisfying contrast to all sorts of foods.

I’m willing to bet you’ve never thought about pickling as a fun thing to do in your own kitchen, but why not??? While beginning the pickling process at home can seem like an intimidating task, with a bit of no-how and a few simple ingredients you can be a pickling pro in no time (try saying that after a couple of glasses of wine!).

Pickling is a great way to cut down potential food waste, while aiding to your digestive health and creating flavourful snacks and garnishes. While longer-term, shelf stable pickling requires specific fermentation equipment (like a pickling pot), the quick pickling method—which is perfect for beginners—requires just a pot, a hob, and some airtight jars. This method is not only an easy entrance into the world of pickling, but is also an affordable and delicious way to preserve your favourite vegetables and fruits.

What You’ll Need

Airtight Jars

You can re-use old jam jars or any kind of jar as long you’ve properly cleaned and sterilised them. Make sure you choose a completely secure container, which will keep your pickles fresh—and your fridge from smelling like vinegar.

Vinegar

While the type of vinegar used in pickling is flexible depending on your personal taste, commonly used vinegars included distilled white vinegar, apple cider vinegar, white wine vinegar, and rice wine vinegar.

Salt

For the pickling process, you’ll want to avoid table salt and any salt that contains additives. Stick to pure sea salt, or a salt that is specifically made for canning or pickling.

Sugar

While white sugar is typically used in the pickling process, feel free to experiment and try out substitutes like brown sugar, honey, or agave for some variations in flavour.

Water

Although pretty much any water can be used in this process, the prefered type is purified water, as hard water can potentially discolor vegetables over time.

Spices and Herbs

The sky’s the limit when it comes to the spices, herbs, and other flavourings used in your homemade pickles, allowing for total creativity and personalization. Some classic pickling spices and herbs include whole peppercorns, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, bay leaves, allspice, red pepper flakes, dill, and chilies. The addition of garlic cloves and jalapenos will add a kick for those who prefer their pickles on the spicy side. 

Things to Pickle

I couldn’t think of a better way to describe this rather essential ingredient. The options are so endless, as you can pickle just about anything (my grandfather pickled his liver but that’s another story). While standard cucumbers are a great way to test the pickling waters, other options for pickling include peppers, tomatoes, onions, green beans, beets, cauliflower, carrots, mushrooms, squash, asparagus, jalapenos, and radishes, as well as fruits like strawberries, peaches, watermelon, and cherries.

The Process

Prep

While some tougher vegetables should be cooked prior to pickling, like beetroot, others should simply be blanched to ensure they’ll maintain their texture, like asparagus. Cut your vegetables down to a size and shape that comfortably fits within your pickling jars. Common shapes include thin disks, spears, or kept whole in the case of smaller, bite-sized vegetables.

Jar

Distribute your pickles into your pickling jars—making sure to leave enough head room for the vinegar/brine—and add in your seasonings and herbs of choice. For each standard-sized jar, about ½ teaspoon of each spice and a couple of sprigs of herbs should do the trick. You can play around with the flavours to create your own unique combinations.

Brine

Though the sugar and salt content of each brine will change depending on the flavour you’re hoping to achieve, as a basic rule there should be equal parts water and vinegar. From there, you can adjust your recipe for different levels of sweet, salty, and bitter by adding extra sugar, salt and other ingredients.

Cook and Cover

Combine your vinegar, water, sugar, and salt in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar. Let boil for 2 minutes and then remove from heat. Pour the hot brine into the pre-seasoned jars of pickles until the liquid has completely covered the vegetables. Securely cover the jars, and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving.

Keep It Chilled

Quick pickles are the best way to ease into the pickling process but must be stored in the fridge, rather than on a shelf, and will not last as long as canned and fermented pickles. Your quick pickles will stay good in the fridge for a month.

Pickle Recipes

If we’ve succeeded in pickling your fancy, check out this incredibly long list of pickle recipes from BBC Good Food .