Homesteading: Pickling and Brining
Pickling is used for a wide range of foods, including fruits and vegetables. Although pickling isn’t practiced much today, don’t overlook this rewarding process for your backyard homestead. Pickling is a great way to preserve some of your garden’s harvest.
This article gives you an overview of pickling, describing the ingredients, the utensils, and the methods used. In no time, you’ll be making easy-to- prepare pickled food and condiments that will wow your taste buds and let you enjoy that bumper crop of cukes (and other veggies) all year long.
Perusing pickling ingredients
Pickling preserves food in a brine solution, a strong mixture of water, salt, vinegar, and sometimes sugar or another sweetener, such as corn syrup. Brining is what gives the vegetables the pickled texture and flavor you’re going for.
Some recipes (usually older ones) include a brining step before the actual canning. Other pickling recipes add the brine solution to the raw vegetable and the brining happens in the sterile canning jar as it sits on your shelf. These recipes generally have a recommendation for how many weeks to wait for best flavor.
The four basic ingredients for pickling are salt, vinegar, water, and herbs and spices. Use high-quality ingredients for the best results.
The perfect balance of salt, vinegar, water, and herbs and spices safely preserves your pickled food. You can achieve this balance by precisely measuring your ingredients and following each step in your recipe.
Salt is used as a preservative. It adds flavor and crispness to your food, especially pickles. Use a pure, additive-free, granulated salt. Acceptable salts are pickling and canning salt (a fine-grained salt containing no additives), most kosher salt, and sea salt, salt produced from evaporated seawater.
Not all kosher salts are the same. The two most popular brands, Diamond and Morton, are quite different in many respects, including (believe it or not) their saltiness! Add the same measurement of each brand to two recipes that are otherwise identical; the difference will not only astound you, it can even ruin some pickling recipes. Without getting into the technical nuts and bolts of how each company makes their salt (which accounts for the disparity), the part you need to know is this: Morton’s kosher salt tastes almost twice as salty as Diamond’s product. When using Morton kosher salt in recipes, it is suggested that you use the prescribed amount, knowing you may need to add a pinch more than the table or pickling salt measurement. If you have Diamond kosher salt on hand, double the prescribed amount to keep the finished flavor in check.
Additives in salt cause cloudy liquid. Always read the ingredient label on your salt container to ensure it’s additive-free. Salts not suitable for brining and pickling solutions are
- Table salt and iodized salt: These contain anti-caking agents, additives that keep the salt from sticking together. These cloud your liquid. Iodine darkens food.
- Rock salt: Rock salt keeps roads free of ice and isn’t made for use with food. It’s okay in an ice-cream freezer because it never touches the food.
- Salt substitutes: These products contain little or no sodium.
Vinegar is a tart liquid that prevents the growth of bacteria. For pickling, you must use a vinegar with an acidity level of 5 percent. If the level of acidity isn’t on the label, don’t use the vinegar — the strength of the acid may not be adequate for safe food preservation.
The preferred vinegar for pickling is distilled white vinegar, which has a sharp, tart flavor, maintains the color of your food, and is relatively inexpensive. For a milder flavor, you can substitute apple cider vinegar. Keep in mind, though, that using cider vinegar will change the overall color of your finished foods, not always for the better. You may get unappetizing gray or brown results from using the wrong type of vinegar.
To avoid cloudy pickles, use a vinegar that’s clear from sediment. Cider and wine vinegars often have sediment, and you may even be able to see things floating around. What causes the sediment? Vinegars that still contain the mother, a harmless bacterium that creates the vinegar but also causes sediment to form on the bottom of the bottle.
Never dilute or reduce the amount of vinegar in a recipe. To ensure a safe product, the brine must have the right acidity level. Never use a vinegar with less than 5 percent acidity.
If the flavor’s too tart, add 1/4 cup granulated sugar for every 4 cups of vinegar. Treating flavors in this manner won’t upset the balance of your vinegar. If you don’t like the flavor when you make the recipe, try another recipe. Don’t forget to jot down your changes on your recipe card!
Soft water is the best water for your brine solution. Too much iron in your water can cause discoloration of the finished product. Distilled water, water with all minerals and other impurities removed, is also a good choice. If you use tap water, make sure it’s of drinking quality; if it doesn’t taste good to you, it won’t taste better in your food. Also, avoid using sparkling water.
Herbs and spices
Use the exact amount of herbs or spices called for in your recipe. If your recipe calls for a fresh herb, use the fresh herb. If your recipe calls for a dried spice, use one with a strong aroma.
Pickling spices are blends of many spices including allspice, bay leaves, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, ginger, mustard seed, and peppercorns. They’re mixed by the manufacturer and vary in flavor. Although these spices are generally whole and therefore good keepers, it is best to buy fresh, new spices each year, before you start canning.
The brining process is a key part of the pickling process because it does these important things:
- Chemically, it draws out the natural juices and replaces them with salty/vinegar solution, giving your veggies that familiar pickled flavor and texture.
- It extracts juice and sugar from your food, forming lactic acid, a bitter-tasting tart acid. This lactic acid serves as the preservative in your pickled food.
- Because the brining solution typically includes vinegar (an acid), it safely converts your low-acid foods (those with a pH level over 4.6) to high-acid foods (with a pH level of 4.6 or less), making it safe for water-bath canning. (This is why you must prepare your recipe as it’s written and not modify the amounts.)
As mentioned previously, sometimes you brine your vegetables before canning; other times, you add the brine solution to the raw vegetables and let the brining occur in the canning jar. The following sections explain how to prepare your veggies for each.
Fresh (or raw) packing: Adding brine to the raw veggies
In this method, you place fresh raw vegetables in prepared jars and then cover them with hot flavored liquid, usually a spicy vinegar, and process the filled jars in your water-bath canner. To ensure the pickling process can occur uniformly, make sure your vegetables are completely submerged in the brining solution. Most of the recipes in this chapter require raw packing.
In this method, you cook your food completely before filling your jars. The following relish recipe is precooked before canning. The taste of the relish is present before you add it to the jars, and it’s ready to eat once it is cooked.
Brining before canning
When brining your vegetables beforehand, how long you let your vegetables soak can vary anywhere from a few hours to several weeks. Your recipe provides the details. Here’s what you need to know about these long or short brines:
- Long brine: This process is primarily used for making pickles from cucumbers. The veggies stay in the brine anywhere from five days to six weeks. The brine solution is quite heavy with salt and may contain some vinegar and spices. None of the recipes in this chapter require a long brine.
- Short brine: The soaking period for this method is 24 hours or less. Follow your recipe for the correct proportions in your brine solution. You use a short brine for the Sweet Pickle Relish and Zucchini Bread and Butter Pickles.
In both cases, you submerge the food in the brine solution, where it ferments (stays in the solution) for the recommended period of time. (Your recipe gives you the details.) After fermenting, follow your recipe and make a fresh brine solution for filling your jars.
Be sure to keep your food completely submerged in the brine solution, whether it’s for a few hours or longer. To do this, place a sealed, water-filled glass jar on top of your food. The jar applies pressure to keep the foods submerged when you cover your brining container.
Stoneware crocks are excellent choices for brining food. You can find them at specialty cookware stores or where canning supplies are sold. But there’s an important caveat: Don’t use a crock that you’ve gotten from a thrift store or other secondhand store. Without the original packaging, you have no way of knowing whether it’s lead-free and suitable for brining.
Old-time canning recipes may instruct you to “soak your pickles in salt brine strong enough to float an egg.” This equates to a 10-percent brine mixture of 1 pound (about 1-1/2 cups) of salt dissolved in 1 gallon of water.