Actually, you can pickle that.
I'm not suggesting you go to the outrageous lengths of pickling an old shoe or parking tickets (although that would be cathartic . . .), as depicted in the famous "Portlandia" sketch, but if you're looking at any decent vegetable and wondering whether it can be pickled, the answer is probably yes.
At least it is if we're talking about quick pickles, which allow you more flexibility with less work and less stress while still delivering the same enticing vinegar tang, crunchy texture and salty punch you'd get in more traditional pickling.
"There's a lot more freedom with quick pickles," says cookbook author Marisa McClellan, who, in her latest book, "The Food in Jars Kitchen: 140 Ways to Cook, Bake, Plate, and Share Your Homemade Pantry," calls quick pickling her favorite way to pickle cucumbers.
In quick pickling, raw or minimally cooked ingredients are merely covered with brine and refrigerated, as opposed to traditional water-bath canning, which involves boiling in water to vacuum-seal a jar. The former makes it especially appealing to novices and people who like to improvise, because there's less worrying about botulism, an illness caused by a bacteria toxin that proliferates in oxygen-free environments (the toxin-creating bacteria spores don't like acid anyway, so pickles are already unfriendly to them). Quick-pickled foods are stored in the refrigerator with plenty of oxygen around - in other words, not favorable conditions for the toxin.
Of course, quick pickling has a lot more going for it than "less likely to give you botulism." Another advantage is that your fruit or vegetable of choice can retain better snap since it won't undergo a boiling water bath. The ease and convenience of quick pickling makes it a great way to use up and extend the shelf life of extra produce. And it creates versatile - not to mention tasty - foods, with no special equipment or skills.
Here are some tips for getting yourself into all kinds of (quick) pickles.
- Pick your pickle. Other than the really obvious things you wouldn't want to preserve in vinegar (delicate greens, for instance), you can quick pickle just about any vegetable, or even fruit, you want. Cucumbers, onion, carrots, peppers, tomatoes? Yes, of course. Cranberries, rhubarb and avocados? You bet. McClellan's dark horses include snap peas and broccoli or broccolini (broccoli rabe).
- Prep the veg. Do your due diligence cleaning your produce, and avoid using anything that has already gotten moldy or limp. Cut the vegetables in a way that makes sense for how long you're willing to wait. Sliced jalapeños or cucumbers can be ready in a matter of hours, whereas whole vegetables or larger pieces will need longer to chill out.
If you're using firm or dense vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli, asparagus or green beans, McClellan says you should give them a quick blanch first, boiling for about 30 seconds to a minute before dunking them in a bowl of ice water or rinsing them under cold water. This helps open up the vegetable pores so the brine can begin to seep in and work its magic.
- Build your brine. McClellan recommends starting with the universal pickling brine and then customizing from there. The proportions are one part water to one part vinegar, plus salt. You'll need 1 tablespoon salt for every cup of water/vinegar (no need to get pickling salt, so use what you prefer). You have some flexibility to adjust the salt, but McClellan says try not to go below 1 teaspoon per cup of water. The salt is there for more than flavor, helping to preserve the vegetables and achieve the right texture. Sugar in the brine is good for flavor balance and color retention, and when I jarred the vegetables you see here, I added about 1 tablespoon of sugar to my mix of 1 cup of water and 1 cup of vinegar.
For food safety, traditional pickling requires vinegar with at least 5 percent acidity. That's not as crucial in quick pickling, so in addition to the usual suspects such as distilled white, cider and wine vinegars, try playing around with something such as rice vinegar. McClellan says you can add ingredients that would otherwise be no-gos in water-bath canning, including olive oil and beer.
- Add spices and herbs to suit your whims. Whole spices such as peppercorns, mustard seeds, cloves and cumin seeds are great. Ditto dried dill or thyme. Or if ground is what you have and like, go for it since you don't need to worry about keeping the brine perfectly clear, McClellan says. Turmeric, for example, adds color and flavor.
For quick pickles, McClellan makes it super easy by heating the brine in the microwave (feel free to do it in a pot), until the sugar dissolves. Stir occasionally. My 2-cup brine took about 2 minutes. If, however, you've blanched your vegetables or otherwise precooked them - McClellan loves to grill and then pickle vegetables - go with a brine that has been cooled so you don't cook them any further.
- Pack and pour. Be sure you're using a clean container to pack your pickles (we may be quick pickling, but we're not barbarians!), though you don't need to sterilize it. Mason and other glass jars are just as good here as they are in traditional canning, McClellan says. Cook's Illustrated suggests heating glass jars with some hot water to reduce the likelihood that the glass will break when it comes in contact with the hot brine. Stay away from flimsy plastic if you're going to be using a hot brine, but reusing peanut butter or mayo jars is fair game, according to McClellan.
- Fill the jars with enough brine so that the vegetables are almost completely submerged. Don't worry if a few tips are sticking out. McClellan says that because the salt in the brine will draw additional water out of the produce (that's why you get that nice crunchy texture), by the time all is said and done, it will be about covered. Let the pickles cool to about room temperature, put on the lid and refrigerate.
- Wait a little while. Typical pickles often require a few weeks to properly cure after a spin through a water bath. The turnaround is much faster with quick pickles. Still, "even the quickest of quick pickles is going to want to be made an hour or two before eating," McClellan says. For even better flavor and texture, an overnight rest is ideal. I dug into the jars photographed for this story the two days after I made them, and they were already flavorful, not to mention wonderfully crisp. Quick pickles can last a few weeks or even a few months. Look for signs of growth such as mold or other yuckies periodically.
Otherwise, make them as often as you like, however you want, until your fridge has no more room. "There's no restraint on creativity when it comes to a refrigerator pickle or a quick pickle," McClellan says. "You can really let your imagination run wild."