Pickling is among the oldest known methods of food preservation. There is evidence the process was employed in Mesopotamia as early as 2000 BC. And pickling crosses many cultures. Cleopatra believed pickled food to be a beauty aid. Aristotle spoke of the healing properties of pickles. And founding father/pickle fan Thomas Jefferson sang the praises of a well-spiced pickle. “On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting that a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally’s cellar,” mused Jefferson.
While some of these restorative claims may be questionable, it is undeniable that the ability to preserve produce (as well as some proteins like fish and eggs) was crucial during the lean times between harvests.
Before the advent of canning in the late 1800s, the only way to effectively extend the shelf life of the crops was to increase acidity through fermentation by introducing salt through dry packing, pickling in a salt water brine or marinating in a highly acidic liquid such as vinegar. Through this process, these perishables could be kept for months. Herbs or spices added to the salty/sour brine or marinade, like mustard seeds, garlic or the best known, dill, offer a wide range of flavors to appeal to any taste.
All that history and science jibber jabber aside, man, do I like pickles. While pickled cucumbers get all the press, there are plenty of vegetables growing out in the backyard that are great candidates for pickling. Pickled beets, pickled okra and pickled green tomatoes all make excellent use of abundant crops. Asparagus, peppers, squash and cabbage are winners. Dilly beans (pickled green beans) are a high point of my summer canning every year. And for those of us with an ever present surplus of eggs courtesy of our backyard chickens, home pickled eggs are just the ticket.
While the basic concept remains the same, there are several methods for pickling your harvest. Fresh pack pickling employs water bath canning and takes just a few hours. Pickles can be fermented in salt water at room temperature over a period of weeks or refrigerated in marinade for just a week or so before they are ready to go.
For the beginner, there are many good books available providing excellent recipes for getting started. Linda Ziedrich’s The Joy of Pickling, Andrea Chesman’s Pickles and Relishes: From Apples to Zucchinis: 150 Recipes for Preserving the Harvest and Jennifer MacKenzie’s The Complete Book of Pickling: 250 Recipes from Pickles and Relishes to Chutneys and Salsas are all excellent jumping off points. Once you get the hang of it, a tweak here or there to your brine or marinade and you’ll be producing blue ribbon pickles in no time. Save me some dilly beans.