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Quick pickles: Simple process makes for delicious eating

September 23, 2018
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Quick pickling -- it’s a trend cropping up in many recent culinary conversations.

As the name implies, it’s a fast and easy alternative for preparing tongue-tingling fermented vegetables and fruits -- minus the time, equipment and steamy kitchen involved in traditional water bath canning.

The ingredients are few -- the produce, a pickling solution, some clean jars and a refrigerator.

The process is relatively simple, and the results are delicious -- and usually ready to eat in a matter of hours, or days at the most.

What’s behind the popularity of quick pickling?

It’s the natural outgrowth of other recent food movements, which really aren’t so new after all, says Chef Greg Andrews, who operates The Pickled Chef in Latrobe with his wife Ashley Andrews.

They sold 5,500 jars of various pickles last year, with customer favorites being dill pickles, kimchi, hot peppers, dilly beans and asparagus, according to Ashley Andrews. Their shelves feature a wide array of pickled veggies, raw pickled foods, condiments and sauces.

“Fermenting and pickling are thousands of years old,” Greg Andrews says. “The methods are tried and true; they’ve just been experimented with and improved over the years. Beer, bread, a lot of things we don’t even think about, are all fermented.”

Kimchi and curtido

The current interest in global cuisines is one factor driving the trend, the chef says, pointing to the popularity of dishes such as kimchi, the sweet-and-spicy Korean pickled slaw, and curtido, another slaw from south of the border.

The Pickled Chef version of curtido includes carrot, red onion, cabbage, jalapeno, lime juice and cumin. After fermenting for 7 to 9 days, it makes a good accompaniment for tacos, roasted chicken, fish and pork chops, Greg Andrews says.

“Virtually every civilization and every country has its own tradition of pickling,” he says, and diners are increasingly adding those punchy international flavors to their plates.

Next, there’s the move toward healthier eating, with gut health taking center stage for many people. Fermented foods introduce desirable bacteria into the digestive system, he says.

Finally, there’s the move away from packaged foods and back to fresh, local and sustainable agriculture, illustrated by the increasing numbers of backyard gardens, farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs.

“People want something that tastes like grandma used to make,” Ashley Andrews says. “And we have a great heritage of agriculture around here.”

Hectic pace

With the hectic pace of modern life, many of us don’t have days to spend in the kitchen doing traditional canning, so quick pickling is a good alternative, she says.

A basic quick pickling solution includes vinegar, some water and salt. Other herbs and spices can be added for flavor. If you don’t like vinegar, you can make a brine with just water and salt.

What’s good for pickling?

Tender vegetables and firm fruits, according to Dori Owczarzak, a Washington, Pa.-based extension educator for Penn State Extension.

In addition to the cucumbers, green beans, zucchini and root vegetables commonly used, fruits like apples, pears, cantaloupe and watermelon rind also work well.

“Fruit should be slightly under-ripe and there shouldn’t be any bruising,” Owczarzak says.

Quick pickled produce is best eaten soon after it’s made, she says.

“I’m not aware of any science-based recommendations for consuming foods that have been quick pickled, so I would default to standard shelf-stable recommendations,” she says.

“There’s so much room for error that I would say use only tested recipes and treat (quick pickled foods) like any other food once it’s prepared -- eat it in 3 or 4 days, or within a week.”

Another reason to get your quick pickles on the table pronto is texture, says Robert Grey, farm educator and outreach coordinator with Grow Pittsburgh.

“If they sit more than a few weeks, they lose their crunchiness,” he says.

No experience needed

Grey also stresses the importance of cleanliness in the preparation process. Since quick pickling doesn’t involve sterilization via a hot water bath, make sure your jars are clean.

“If you don’t have a clean jar, bad bacteria can build up,” he says. “You’ll start to see scum or mold growing on the top of your liquid.”

Aside from that, he says, “don’t be afraid to try. Quick pickling is really easy and anyone can do it without any experience.”

Grey says he learned the process about a year and a half ago, in Grow Pittsburgh’s urban farm apprenticeship program, which he now manages.

“The most important thing is salt and vinegar. If you don’t like vinegar, you can just make a salty brine. Experiment with different herbs.”

Most of Grey’s pickling has been done with green beans, turnips, beets and radishes. Lately, he says, he’s been adding lemon-flavored herbs like lemon verbena, lemon basil and lemon balm.

“I thought it was really cool how nature created these same flavors over time in different herbs,” he says.

SWEET & TANGY MUSTARD PICKLES

Raw, fermented, refrigerator-style pickles; adapted from a recipe from Ashley Andrew’s great-grandmother

Servings: approximately 4 quarts, or 8 pints

Preparation time: 2-4 hours

Ingredients:

• 6 pounds medium-sized (2 to 3 inches) pickling cucumbers

• 4 sterilized standard quart or 8 standard pint canning jars and lids

Pickling Solution

• 1⁄2 cup pickling salt

• 1⁄2 cup sugar

• 1⁄2 cup dry mustard

• 1 tsp. turmeric

• 1 quart vinegar

• 1 quart water

Cut the cucumbers into chunks and place in sterilized canning jars. Make pickling solution by mixing pickling salt, sugar, mustard and turmeric in a 2-quart non-reactive mixing bowl. Slowly pour in the quart of vinegar and quart of water. Stir well, stirring out any lumps.

Carefully pour pickling solution into each jar of pickles, filling to the top. You may need to stir a couple times in between pouring. Put sterilized tops and lids on canning jars and close tightly. Let stand in a cool, dry place for at least three weeks before using, making sure cucumbers remain submerged in the brine.

Refrigerate jars after fermenting.

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