Pickling Basics
Credit: Photograph by Jason Wallis

Pickling Basics

There was a time, not so long ago, when pickling meant essentially one thing: soaking cucumbers in a standard brine and dropping them in a jar labeled "Vlasic." In recent years, though, adventurous cooks have begun combining high-quality ingredients with bold spices to transform the humble pickle into a gourmet treat – one that adds a striking accent to, yes, burgers, but also to entrées, cheese plates, charcuterie platters, and even cocktails.

"People have realized that what they grew up with wasn't the best example of pickles," says Chris Forbes, co-owner of Sour Puss Pickles, a boutique pickling outfit in Brooklyn. "Today, you've got extravagant, complex flavors that you'd never find in your grandmother's cellar." And, lucky for us, it's not just cucumbers – Sour Puss sells carrots pickled in ginger and mustard seeds; golden beets pickled in honey and mint; and Thai chili peppers pickled with cardamom and fennel seeds. Still, the best part? All this can be accomplished in your kitchen, with cookware you already own. "Once you learn a few tricks," Forbes says, "pickling is supremely easy." And then you're free to tailor the spices to your liking.

Some pointers. First off, you should sterilize adequately. To kill harmful bacteria, boil mason jars and their lids in a large pot for at least 10 minutes and use sterilized tongs to remove them from the water. Proper sealing is also important. When pouring in the brine, make sure it covers your vegetables completely and also leaves a half-inch of space at the top. Remove air bubbles by tapping the bottom of each jar on a countertop. Then clean the rims with a towel and screw on the lids tightly. Place the jars in a pot of simmering water for 5 minutes before transferring them to a pot of rapidly boiling water for 10 more minutes. To ensure a tight seal, remove the jars and place them in a cool spot, say, in front of a fan. Listen for lids to pop, which can take up to 12 hours.

Now, about storage: It'll be at least a month before your brine converts the natural sugars in the vegetables to the acids that, in turn, preserve the food and sharpen its flavors. During this time, put your jars in an area away from direct sunlight. If the vegetables become discolored, do not eat them.

To get started, try one of the following recipes, all courtesy of Sour Puss Pickles (sourpusspickles.com).

Superior Spears

Ingredients
• 15 lbs fresh Kirby cucumbers, each roughly 3 inches long
• 12 cups water
• 9 cups distilled white vinegar
• 2/3 cup kosher salt
• 1 tbsp sugar
• 1 bay leaf
• 7 tbsp caraway seeds
• 8 tbsp mustard seeds
• 6 tbsp coriander
• 5 tbsp black pepper
• 12 cloves fresh, peeled garlic
• 1 bunch fresh dill
• 1 fresh grape leaf

Soak cucumbers in ice water for 1 hour. Combine water, vinegar, salt, sugar, and bay leaf in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Wash cucumbers. Slice off the blossom ends and cut into spears. In a large bowl,combine caraway seeds, mustard seeds, coriander, and black pepper. Add 1 tbsp of this mixture to each jar, just covering the bottom. To each jar, add 1 clove garlic and 2 dill sprigs. Stuff cucumber slices into jars. Chop grape leaf, and sprinkle a pinch into each jar. Remove bay leaf from brine. Pour brine into jars and seal them (see tips above). Let sit for one month. Makes roughly 12 26-oz jars.

Golden Beets

Ingredients
• 10 lbs fresh golden beets
• 12 cups water
• 3/4 cup
• honey
• 2/3 cup kosher salt
• 2 cinnamon sticks
• juice of 1 lemon
• 8 cups apple cider vinegar
• 6 tbsp fennel seeds
• 7 tbsp mustard seeds
• 5 tbsp black pepper
• 3 shallots
• 1 bunch fresh mint

Wash beets and chop off tops. Place in a large pot of boiling water for 15 minutes, leaving slightly undercooked. Combine water, honey, salt, cinnamon sticks, lemon juice, and vinegar in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. In a large bowl, combine fennel seeds, mustard seeds, and black pepper. Add 1 tbsp of this mixture to each jar, just covering the bottom. Cut shallots into 1/4-inch slices, and add one slice to each jar. Strain and peel beets; slice into quarters. Toss with lemon juice. Fill each jar halfway with beets. Add 2 sprigs of mint and then fill to top with more beets. Skim any film off the top of the honey-and-water brine, and remove cinnamon sticks. Pour brine into jars and seal them (see tips above). Let sit for two months. Makes roughly eight 16-oz jars.

Thai Chilis

Ingredients
• 1/3 lb fresh Thai chili peppers
• 12 cups water
• 10 cups distilled white vinegar
• 2/3 cup kosher salt
• 1/8 cup sugar
• 2 cinnamon sticks
• 1 bay leaf
• 5 tbsp fennel seeds
• 8 tbsp mustard seeds
• 4 tbsp black pepper
• 16 green cardamom pods

Wash chili peppers and trim stems. Combine water, vinegar, salt, sugar, cinnamon sticks, and bay leaf in a large pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. In a large bowl, combine fennel seeds, mustard seeds, and black pepper. Add 1 tbsp of this mixture to each jar, just covering the bottom. To each jar, add 2 cardamom pods. Stuff chilis, stem side up, in jars. Pour brine into jars and seal them (see tips above). Let sit for one month. Makes roughly eight 9-oz jars.