For many of us, the notion of canning or pickling of any sort conjures up images of giant steaming water baths, slippery tongs, and sunny afternoons spent sweating over the stove. There are lots of things a person wants to do at the last gasp of summer, when the harvest is in full swing. Pickling might not be one of them.
Fortunately for the pickle-loving but lazy eater, there’s a way to have your pucker and eat it too: refrigerator pickles. Unrefrigerated pickles on the supermarket shelf are either “processed” or “fresh pack.” Processed pickles get weeks of fermentation; the lactic acid they produce makes them shelf-stable. Fresh pack are briefly pasteurized to kill bacteria; in their sterile jars, they, too, can last for months.
But refrigerator pickles demand neither weeks of waiting nor a boiling bath. Instead, a highly acidic mixture of white vinegar or cider vinegar keeps them from spoiling. You might have to bring the vinegar brine (along with sugar or kosher or sea salt) to a boil before pouring it over your pickles. But that’s pretty much the extent of it.
Although the most familiar sort of pickle is the cucumber dill, there are virtually countless vegetables eligible for the pickling treatment: beets, radishes, onions, beans, shallots, cauliflower, even broccoli. If you’re a fan of Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches, chances are you’ve eaten pickled daikon turnips and pickled carrots. If you go to Korean restaurants, your banchan appetizers probably included pickled cabbages and pickled white radishes. Sometimes falafel comes with a rousing company of “hamutzim,” an array of pickled carrots, peppers, onions. Practically all of this international crew are refrigerator pickles.
As far as seasonings go, dill (the herb or the seeds) is what we expect to find in a pickle jar, along with the mysterious “pickling spice.” Pickling spice might be a mixture of assorted whole or lightly broken spices you can probably find languishing in the back of your pantry. Typical ingredients are pungent seasonings like mustard seeds, coriander, and black peppercorns and warm or aromatic ones like bay, cinnamon, and cloves. But spices are limited only by your imagination.
Once you’ve chosen the vegetables and spices and boiled a vinegar brine, your job is practically done. Fill the jars, seal with the lids, and refrigerate. For six weeks, your pickles will reside in sour splendor in their chilly environment, waiting to be picked off one by one. Still, you may wonder: Is six weeks long enough? Almost certainly. Because if you haven’t eaten them by then, you may find yourself wondering something else. Perhaps you don’t like pickles enough to even do the simple route.
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