Learn why quick pickles will elevate your home cooking. And how you can make them.
When summer comes around, I go a little crazy at the farmer’s market. We have a short growing season here in Colorado. So I try to take advantage of it while I can! And that all means I always end up with way more produce than I know what to do with. It’s a problem. 😬
Enter one of my favorite chef-y things to do: quick pickles. They’re kind of a big dill 😉. You might also hear them called ‘refrigerator pickles’, or if you hang out with my wife, ‘quickles’. Whatever you call them, we are diving in. So crack open a jar. We’re going to talk about why they’re great and how you can make them!
I’m not talking about long-term preservation or canning. That, my friends, is out of my level of expertise. Check out this article if you’re interested in the science behind acid as a form of preservation and a guide for how to do it.
Oh let me tell you the ways...
There are three main components to a quick pickle:
Acid is the most important part of your brine. So the first step is to pick a vinegar. While any vinegar will do the job, each type will impart its own signature on your pickles. White wine vinegar is the most neutral. Red wine vinegar will turn your veggies a shade of pink. Rice vinegar is mild and adds some sweetness. Apple cider vinegar adds fruitiness. While not vinegar, lemon and lime juice work as well and are quite flavorful.
Next, we talk about proportions. Most recipes out there call for 1 part vinegar to 1 part water. That gives you a really nice tang. But Joshua McFadden said it well in the Six Seasons cookbook, “Low acid and always a touch of sweetness will allow you to taste the vegetable, not just the brine.” He does 0.5 part vinegar to 1.5 parts water. Personally, I like lots of tang. But I also want to taste more than vinegar. So I’m in the 0.5 parts vinegar to 1 part water camp myself. 😄
Quick note: make sure you use good water. Since the vegetables absorb the brine, that means they’ll absorb the water too. So it’s an important ingredient. If your water doesn’t taste good, your pickles won’t taste good. Consider using filtered or distilled water depending on your water quality.
Then come the seasonings. Like I mentioned before, we want this brine to be flavorful. Salt is essential for seasoning everything in the kitchen. 1 tablespoon for 2 cups of liquid is a good starting point. And sugar balances the acidity. Lots of recipes call for a boatload of sugar—like a cup. I typically use about 3-5 tablespoons per 2 cups of liquid so it isn’t overly sweet.
Whole spices and hardy herbs will add flavor too. I recommend toasting the whole spices to extract more flavor. I love coriander seeds for their citrus flavor. I frequently use mustard seeds and peppercorns too. Since spices are fat-soluble and there’s no fat in the brine, we want to maximize flavor. And toasting does that. Then come the herbs. More delicate herbs like basil or mint won’t hold up over time in the brine. I’d recommend using hardy herbs like thyme, bay leaves, rosemary, and cilantro stems.
And don’t forget about other aromatics like garlic, ginger, and dried chile peppers! 🌶🧄 Smash the garlic and ginger before adding them to the pot. Breaking their cell walls will make their flavor more potent. As for the chile, I’d toast them first! They will add earthy, fruity, and/or smoky flavors to your pickles.
To bind all these elements together, you’ll want to add the water, vinegar, sugar, salt, and other seasonings/aromatics to a pot. Then bring it all up to a gentle simmer. Make sure to stir well. Once the sugar and salt dissolve fully, it’s ready!
The hard part is over! Cut up your vegetables however you’d like them. Then add them to a jar or container. You’ll want to take out any of the large seasonings like thyme sprigs or smashed garlic from the brine and add them to the jar too. That will help prevent spillage. Lastly, you’ll pour your brine over the vegetables. You’ll want the vegetables to be entirely covered to reduce the amount of bacterial growth.
There is one more thing to consider. Should the brine be hot when you add it to the vegetables? Or should you let it cool down first? Here’s how I think about it. How much softening do the veggies need? Let’s bring it back to our radishes. If you leave them whole, I’d probably pour the hot brine over them. This lets them “cook” for a bit and soften. If the radish is thinly sliced though, I’d let the brine cool down first. This makes sure they stay crisp and don’t turn soggy.
Once the vegetables are covered in the brine and everything has cooled down, throw them in the fridge. Depending on the thickness of the vegetable, they may need about 24 to 72 hours before they are just right. But it won’t hurt if you use them before that.
Just remember this. Since we didn’t actually process them, they’ll need to stay in the fridge for their entire lives. And while they won’t last as long as canned pickles, they’ll last about a month.
Where I learned this: Joshua McFadden’s Six Seasons, trying lots of great quick pickle recipes on Serious Eats, and this great blog from Crowded Kitchen.