If eyes are windows into the soul, pickle jars are windows of the pantry. Suspended behind clear glass, the bright contents of a pickle jar are a beautiful promise of colorful wintertime meals.
And nutrition in the bank — as fermentation creates conditions that favor the growth of healthy germs like lactobacillus. They make the environment more acidic, which prevents the growth of dangerous microbes. That same acidic environment is what pickles the food the microbes are growing on. In fact, the common pickling agent vinegar is a fermentation product.
More value may be found beyond the nutrition, as those pretty jars also lend themselves to monetization, or at least bartering. You can trade two quarts of my "Ari-style" pickles — basic instructions below — for a pack of frozen venison bratwursts in some circles. A pickled mix of carrots and red jalapeños used to be my calling card at potlucks. It's a combination loosely modeled on Mexican-style pickles found in the salsa bars of many Southern restaurants.
To reflect a littler further on my pickling career, I would say that it's my brine, more than any combination of items that I may cram into a jar, that defines Ari-style. This is what people text me for late at night, as they contemplate a large cauliflower in the fridge, or a box of baby cucumbers they bought at the farmers market on a whim.
Here is what I text back: "50/50 mix of vinegar and water; vinegar portion is ½ cider and ½ white, with sugar to taste. Per jar: 1 tsp. salt and 1 tbsp. mustard seed. Dill, if you nasty."
This brine can convert any suitable vegetable or fruit into an Ari-style pickle. There will be tweaks, of course. Pickling spices in the beets, or dill heads for the cucumbers and beans, for example.
The best pickles result from a perfect storm of little things done right that add up to greatness. The produce must be picked in the cool of the morning and pickled that day. The jar's contents must be packed in a way that fills space efficiently and nothing is crushed. The seeds and salt must be put in first so they don't float to the top and inhibit the seal. The vinegar must be brought to a boil but not rolled. The grape leaf must be folded like an origami swan.
So let's expand on my late-night text, and dive deep into the secret messages hidden between the lines, with fleshed-out thoughts and annotations like lines from Finnegan's Wake. The following list is more of a skeleton key than a set of directions (which follows, in brief), and assumes basic canning knowledge, most of which can be obtained by reading the directions on a box of jars or lids:
Sterilization: The dishwasher rocks this. Go for wide-mouth jars, which are easier to pack.
Calculating brine volume: Pack a jar, minus the mustard seeds and salt, and fill the jar with water. Pour the water into a measuring cup. Multiply that volume by the number of jars. That is your total brine volume. Add a cup extra if you're scared to run out.
White vinegar: One can use sherry or white balsamic, which are spectacular, but old-fashioned "white vinegar," whatever it is, works fine too.
Sugar "to taste": As the water and vinegar, aka "the brine," is heating up, add sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until it is just sweet enough to take the edge off the vinegar. Or add a ton and call them sweet pickles.
Salt "to taste": I like a teaspoon in each jar for a baseline of flavor and a bit of preservative. Some people know how much salt they like, and should add accordingly. Adding zero is an option as well.
Produce: Doesn't really matter what it is, as long as it's fresh. Specifically: fleshy peppers, carrots, cauliflower, beans, asparagus, watermelon rind (with mad amounts of spices), radishes, kohlrabi, mushrooms, okra, green tomatoes and kale stems, not to mention eggs and pigs' feet (for which my style of brine does not apply).
Size: Large things, like big carrots, peppers or cucumbers, need to be cut into sizes that pack reasonably into jars. Small cucumbers, peppers and carrots that pack nicely can go in whole.
The grape leaf: People have been putting alum powder in their pickles to keep them crispy forever. And have been using grape leaves a few millennia longer. Many county extension agents, those noble, apolitical garden angels, are now shunning the use of hydrated potassium aluminum sulfate. Some recommend lime powder or calcium chloride instead, or this hugely important trick for cucumber pickles. Fully remove the blossom ends of the cucumbers, the remnants of which contain an enzyme, pectinase, which will speed the softening of pickles in the jar. And add a grape leaf — which, I was kidding — doesn't have to be folded like an origami swan.
Mustard seeds: I like a mix of black and yellow. Do they do anything besides look pretty at the bottom of the jar? Maybe. Can you grind them into mustard when the pickles are gone? Yes.
Garlic clove: A lot of people add one or two. If you want to eat some pickled garlic, go for it. And it might make the pickles taste better. See: Mustard seeds.
Processing: Most recipes, for liability reasons, call for 10 minutes in a water bath. And I shall do the same. At home, when nobody is looking, I do a "hot pack," where I pour the hot brine into the jar of pickles and screw the rings and lids on. Because the more you cook your pickles, the more soggy they will be. I do cook my pickled beets because I want them a little soft.
Okay, now for some basic directions. This is my generalized pickled pepper recipe:
Sterilize jars. Cut vegetables. Add a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon or two of mustard seeds to the bottom of each empty jar. Pack peppers and veggies into jars as tightly as possible, leaving a 1–inch headspace. Add any extras like grape leaf, garlic, onions and oregano along with the veggies.
When the jars are packed, heat your brine. The more space-efficiently you've packed the jars the less brine you will need. The brine consists of equal parts vinegar and water. As it heats, add sugar to taste, a little at a time until it softens the edge of the vinegar but doesn't make it taste sweet.
When the brine boils, turn off the heat and pour it into the jars, covering the veggies by half an inch — which should leave another half-inch of headspace. Wipe any stray mustard seeds from the rims. Process in a water bath for 5 to 10 minutes, or simply hot pack it.
Now, with all of this being said about the finer points of pickling, all rules and bets are off for fridge pickles. Fresh produce or not. Sterilized jars or not. Fresh brine, or recycled juice from a previous pickle jar. Random leaves like oregano or tarragon, or not.
Bottom line: Cover vegetables with flavored vinegar in the fridge. "Just put the damn thongs in the fridge and don't worry about it," I recently texted, not even bothered by typos. But fridge pickles are not just an excuse for being half-assed. It's a way to tweak your recipes, decide what you and the family like, and craft your future.
Since I've basically got the vinegar pickle thing mastered, my next frontier is fermentation pickles. Also known as letting things kind of rot in jars, but in a way that's safe and somehow tasty. It sounds sloppy and stinky — just my style.