Your Guide to Homemade Pickles
Without herbs and spices, a pickle would be a bland shadow of the fresh cucumber it started out to be. The myriad nuances and complexities provided by the herbs and spices used in the pickling process are what give pickles their signature flavors.
It’s easy and fun to create your own signature pickling blend according to your taste preferences. Begin with a basic, multifunctional seasoning blend for the brine, then experiment with additional spices to strike a balance that makes the perfect pickle.
Note: The information below refers to cucumber pickles, but just about any vegetable, from Italian giardiniera to onions and radishes, can be pickled using your own customized seasoned brine.
Step 1: Understand the basic elements of a pickling spice blend
Salt, sugar, turmeric, garlic, onion, peppers and dill seed are essential to any basic pickling spice blend for the role they each play in creating a balanced, effective brine.
- Salt: Helps create the brine and draws out moisture from the raw cucumber so that it can be replaced by the flavors of the seasoned brine.
- Sugar: Helps to counterbalance the salty tartness of the vinegar brine. Sugar is especially necessary for sweet pickles like bread-n-butters.
- Turmeric: Adds an unmistakable earthy richness and produces the vivid yellow brine necessary in many finished pickle jars.
- Garlic and onion: Add aromatic, flavor-enhancing depth to what would otherwise be bland, one-note cucumbers.
- Chili peppers and black peppercorns: Add heat.
- Dill seed: Gives dill pickles their signature taste.
Basic Pickling Spice Blend
- 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon granulated onion
- 1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric root powder
Step 2: Experiment with additional spices
Once you've covered the basics, adding more spices to your blend will give it a unique character based on your tastes and preferences. The following spices make good additions to the basic blend above.
- Allspice: mild, clove and cinnamon depth
- Cinnamon: spicy, hot sweetness
- Celery: fresh, green vegetal flavors
- Mustard seed: aromatic spiciness
- Coriander seed: floral, fruity spiciness resembling lime or orange
- Bay leaf: warm, soft, aromatic spice flavor
- Ginger: lemony, warm
- Fennel seed: fruity, vegetal, warm
- Fenugreek seed: rich, slightly nutty
To start, add a pinch to 1/2 teaspoon of one or more spices from this list to your basic pickling spice blend.
Step 3: Create your signature recipe
Classic pickles such as dill, bread-n-butter and sweet gherkin have their own pickling spice blends that may vary slightly from recipe to recipe. Likewise, you can add specific flavor profiles to the basic blend to create your own signature recipes.
- Chipotle pepper: Hot, smoky
- Curry powder featuring red chilies, paprika and cumin: fiery, exotic
- Star anise: sweet, mild
- Onion flakes and garlic granules: flavor boosting
- Cardamom pods/seeds: aromatic, penetrating
Step 4: Make pickles!
Following a trusted recipe and safe canning processes, put your customized pickling spice blend to the test! Leave spices whole in the jar or strain them out of the brine before the pickles are jarred.
For basic cucumber pickles, try your blend in the recipe below.
Homemade Cucumber Pickles
3 cups water
2 3/4 cups vinegar
1/4 cup non-iodized sea or Kosher salt
1 to 3 tablespoons pickling spice
Approximately 4 pounds fresh pickling cucumbers, sliced and blossom ends removed
1. Pack cucumbers into sterile glass jars.
2. In a large saucepan, combine pickling spice blend and brine ingredients. Heat and stir until salt is dissolved.
3. Strain spices (optional).
4. Pour brine over jarred pickles. Following safe canning processes, process in a water bath or store in the refrigerator.
DIY Pickling Spice
Good spices are essential to good pickling. If you have fresh spices in the garden, like stalks of graceful dill, include those for visual interest and fresh taste. But dried spices — whole, ground, and crushed — are really all you need.
For ease and dependability, you might want to keep a ready-made pickling blend on hand. There are a variety of these—including Frontier’s Mild and Sweet and Original Spicy options. But have some fun concocting your own custom spice combinations, too. One person’s favorite pickles might highlight the warm sweetness of cardamom and allspice, for example, while another cook’s favorite blend might pop with chili peppers and garlic.
Get-You-Started Pickling Spice Blend
Use this recipe as a rough guideline, but vary amounts and spice choices according to taste. Simply combine all ingredients to make about 1/4 cup of blend. Make small batches of several blends and use your assortment on pickling day.
1 3-inch cinnamon stick, broken up
3 bay leaves, torn into small pieces
2 small dried chili peppers, cut into small pieces
2 teaspoons yellow mustard seed
2 teaspoons dill seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 teaspoon whole allspice
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seed
Tips for Creating the Perfect Pickle
A symbol of both thrift and abundance, the pickle jar is a staple in every well-stocked pantry. Putting up your cucumber bounty with Grandma’s dill directions maintains an important link with the past — and a promising future. If growing your own pickles doesn’t strike your fancy, you’re still a pickler if you enjoy mixing up that lively relish recipe or gourmet side dish of spicy pickled mango. Using an array of spices and a variety of produce (think outside the cucumber patch), you too can easily make your own signature pickles. You’ll find it easy to experiment when making pickles, because the basic ingredients and processes are similar.
There are four key things to keep in mind:
- Use soft water, or distilled »»or bottled water. Hard water interferes with the curing process.
- Use vinegars—cider, white, or others—with 4 to 6 percent acetic acid. Commercial vinegars meet this requirement, and you can buy a ph meter to test homemade vinegars.
- Use pickling salt—not table salt that contains iodine or anti-caking agents or sea salt, which contains trace minerals. Pickling salt (and kosher salt) is free of additives that might discolor ingredients.
- Use pots, pans, and bowls that are unchipped enamel, stainless, or glass. Galvanized, copper, brass, or iron pans or utensils can react with the salts or acids and change the color and taste of the pickles or even form toxic compounds.
What to pickle — Think outside the cucumber patch
Cucumbers are traditional for pickling, of course, but almost any veggie will do. (Although when you say the word "pickle," most people assume you're talking cukes. Otherwise, you'd likely say "pickled beets," or "pickled cauliflower," for example.) Cauliflower, radishes, baby carrots, onions, green beans, shallots, zucchini, okra, broccoli, red peppers, beets, green tomatoes, and garlic cloves all make perfect pickles.
For the best pickles, choose fresh, crisp veggies, and pickle them as soon as possible (within 24 hours of harvest is ideal). When it comes to cukes, those specified "pickling cucumbers" produce the best results. Stick with cucumbers that are less than 2 inches in diameter.
When preparing your veggies for pickling, cut off the blossom end (it harbors microbes), and cut into roughly the same size pieces so that they'll pickle consistently. Slice cucumbers lengthwise, leave whole, or cut crosswise (for bread-and-butter pickles, for example). Tip: Soaking whole fresh cukes in ice water for 4 to 5 hours before pickling will help keep them crisp.
Here are some non-traditional recipes for pickling:
Cucumbers aren't the only produce with bread and butter pickling potential!
Choose fresh, crisp cucumbers for this recipe. Assemble in the morning and serve at your picnic lunch or dinner.
Red wine gives pickled products a rich, full-flavored taste. It also enhances the color of the beets nicely in this recipe.
Other Pickling Ingredients
Vinegar is what pickles your produce. Most recipes call for white vinegar, but other vinegars—apple cider, wine vinegar—work, too. (Balsamic is not recommended.) Vinegars should have 5 percent acetic acid for pickling. (Commercial vinegars meet this requirement, and you can buy a pH meter to test homemade vinegars.) Sometimes vinegar is used straight, and sometimes it's diluted with water (up to three times the amount of water).
If your recipe calls for water along with vinegar, use soft or distilled water. Hard water will interfere with the pickling process, producing discoloration and off-flavors.
Salt draws moisture out of the veggies and helps with the production of good bacteria (necessary for the pickling process). According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, pickles can be made using iodized or non-iodized table salt. However, many table salts include non-caking materials that will make your brine cloudy. The Center does not recommend flaky salt like kosher or sea salts, since the salt particles vary in density so much that it's hard to consistently add the right amount. On the other hand, some pickling connoisseurs enjoy using a variety of sea salts in their pickles, so you may want to do some experimenting!
Sweeteners, such as sugar, brown sugar and honey, are used most often when making sweet pickles. Usually the vinegar isn't diluted in these recipes.
Spices distinguish the pickle, and good spices are essential to good pickling. If you have fresh herbs and spices in the garden, such as stalks of graceful dill, include those for visual interest and fresh taste. But dried spices are all you really need for great tasting pickles.
Popular spices for pickling include allspice, bay leaf, black pepper, caraway, cardamom, celery seed, chili peppers, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, dill, fenugreek, fennel, garlic, ginger, juniper, mace, mustard, and nutmeg. (See the info below for guidelines to the most common spices in the different varieties of pickles.)
There are exceptions but, in general, whole spices are preferable to powdered, because powdered spices can make your brine cloudy and sludgy. Spices can be added to the jar before the produce, or they can be tied into a cheesecloth sachet and added to the brine (and later removed).
You'll want to have a good pickling spice blend on hand, too. Stock up on a reliable, convenient pre-made blend, like one of Frontier's Pickling Spice blends. Or try your hand at making your own. Here's a recipe for Get-You-Started Pickling Spice Blend.
Have some fun concocting your own custom spice combinations, too. One person's favorite pickles might highlight the warm sweetness of cardamom and allspice, for example, while another cook's favorite blend might pop with chili peppers and garlic.
The supplies you'll need will vary according to the method of pickling you're tackling, but here's a quick rundown:
No matter your method, glass jars are preferred for pickling because they don't absorb odors (won't always smell like a pickle). They also look wonderful lining a cupboard shelf!
You'll also likely need a large stainless steel, glass, or enamelware (unchipped) pot. Large spoons, a funnel, and a ladle will also come in handy. Don't use utensils made of galvanized metal, zinc, iron, brass, or copper, though, as these substances can react with the acids and salts and ruin your pickles.
If you're canning, you'll need a canner (pot in which to sanitize the filled jars), as well as wide-mouth canning jars, lids, and rings (metal bands that secure the lids to the jars; these may be reused). A jar grabber and lid lifter (to pick up the hot jars/lids from boiling water when sanitizing) are also useful.
A pickle is produce preserved in brine. There are several ways to carry out the preservation, and it needn't be a painstaking process. One involves canning, or sterilizing, jars of pickles in big canning pots. Another is a simple fermentation process, and the third is a quick and easy refrigeration method.
Quick-Process or Fresh-Pack Pickles
Produce is combined with a pickling solution of hot vinegar and spices, and then the jars are processed in a boiling water bath in a canner. Bread and butter pickles, dill pickles, and pickled beets are often made this way.
Here are some directions from the National Center for Home Food Preservation for making Quick Fresh-Pack Dill Pickles.
Fermented Pickles or Crock Pickles
Produce is covered with a brine solution in a crock or jar for several weeks. The ideal temperature for fermentation is in the 65 to 80 degree F range; warmer produces slime and cooler slows the process. During this time, lactic acid bacteria grow, preserving the pickles and giving them flavor. Once the pickles are ready, they're moved to the refrigerator. This method is often used for making dill pickles, half sour pickles, and sauerkraut.
For comparison with the fresh-pack dills above, here are some directions from the National Center for Home Food Preservation for making Dill Pickles using fermentation.
Refrigerated Pickles or Quick Pickles
This is the quick and easy method! Produce is covered in a brine solution and kept in the refrigerator for hours or days until the desired taste and crispness is achieved. The taste is fresher and less acidic than in pickles produced via other methods. While refrigerator pickles don't last as long as canned pickles (and they need to be kept in the refrigerator), they'll be good for a couple months or more (and if your recipe is a success, they'll be long gone by then). Sour/half sour pickles are often produced this way, as are many relishes.