There are four general methods for pickling: quick, salt-brined, vinegar-brined and fermented. Within those basic pickling techniques, there exist many variations to pickle different vegetables and fruits and to make relishes and chutneys. Each pickling method has its own benefits, and some produce lends itself better to one method or another.
Quick-pickle method: Items that are pickled using the quick-pickle technique sometimes are called “fresh pickles.” The vegetables and/or fruits to be pickled are trimmed and/or chopped, sliced or left whole. In some cases, the produce is blanched (asparagus, for example) or cooked until tender (beets) and cooled. Then the produce is packed into canning jars, and a heated pickling liquid is poured over the jars’ contents. The liquid generally consists of vinegar and water, and it can include spices, herbs, sugar and salt flavor. Sometimes, the vegetables and/or fruits are heated in the liquid before being packed into canning jars. Quick pickling works well with cucumbers, carrots, cauliflower, hot or sweet peppers and green beans, among other vegetables. Fruits such as cherries and crab apples also are great for quick pickling.
Salt-brined method: Some vegetables, such as cucumbers and zucchini, benefit from having some of their natural water removed before the pickling liquid is added. By adding salt – either on its own or in a salt-water brine – the water is drawn out of the vegetables’ cells. This allows the pickling liquid to penetrate into the cells more thoroughly, giving the pickling items more flavor, better texture and a longer shelf life. Vegetables usually are doused with salt for at least a few hours and up to an entire day. The excess salt then is rinsed off and the vegetables drained well and packed into canning jars, either cold or heated. Finally, a vinegar-based pickling liquid is added to create the proper acidic conditions and to add flavor. Again, spices, sugar and herbs can be added to vary the flavor. Bread-and-butter pickles (also known as sweet-and-sour pickles) and kosher-style dill pickles are classic examples of the salt-brined pickling technique. This method also is used for cabbage, zucchini, eggplant and other juicy vegetables.
Vinegar-brined method: These pickled items are a little more complex to make than the previous two methods. The vinegar-brined technique basically follows the same process for salt-brined pickles – drawing the water out of the vegetables’ or fruits’ cells to make room for the pickling liquid. In this method, the water is gradually drawn out in stages by soaking, draining and soaking again, using a vinegar solution, sometimes in combination with a salt-water brine and often with plenty of sugar. The cells of the vegetables or fruits then can be completely saturated with pickling liquid, providing a savory flavor and texture. Traditional recipes, such as nine-day or 12-day pickles and sweet gherkins, are examples of vinegar-brined pickles. The vinegar-brined technique is also used for soft fruits and for watermelon rind, though usually with fewer steps than for vegetables.
Fermented method: This is a considerably different technique from the others, though it uses a salt-water brine. The vegetables are covered in a salt-water brine, weighed down to make sure the vegetables are immersed and left at a specific temperature – usually at room temperature – to ferment.
During fermentation, the salt draws the liquid out of the cells, and naturally occurring microbes digest the sugars from the liquid and form lactic acid (among other substances). The lactic acid reduces the pH to a level that preserves the vegetables. There’s no need to add vinegar, sugar or citrus juices to fully fermented pickled items. Through the fermentation process, the food develops aromas and flavors that give fermented pickles their unique character. Sauerkraut is the most famous example of a fermented pickle, and the pungent flavor of “crock-cured” or “barrel-fermented” deli-style dills comes from this natural fermentation method, too.
Relishes and chutneys essentially are pickled foods, just with more finely chopped pieces and often with combinations of vegetables and/or fruits rather than just one variety. Many relishes use the salt-brine method to remove some of the natural water content first, giving the relish more robust flavors. Chutney is a little different, in that it is simmered longer to create a thicker, jam-like consistency, but it consists of the same basic ingredients: vegetables and/or fruit, vinegar, sugar and spices.