Can You Pickle It?

A photograph of the author, Austin Bailey.

By Austin Bailey

September 17, 2019

Can You Pickle It?

In This Article

  • It's the time of the year to put up fresh produce for the winter.
  • Pickling and fermenting are both classic ways to preserve foods, and they're both pretty easy to do at home.
  • Did you know that not all pickles are pickled?

Gleaning those last veggies from your summer garden and running out of things to do with them? If so, there are two key questions to ask.

1. Can you pickle it?

Undoubtably, the answer is yes. Tomatoes, okra, squash and even lettuce (!) can be fermented or preserved in a vinegary brine. But...

2. Should you pickle it?

That’s the better question. The answer is that it depends.

Pickled shrimp and quail eggs are Southern delicacies, but they’re not to everyone’s liking. Pickled brussels sprouts exist, but in my experience they’re not a hot seller. On the other hand, more mainstream choices like pickled garlic, radishes, carrots and cauliflower are popular. And pickling is a great way to preserve fresh food for the winter.

Lemons and garlic ferment in jars. Photo by Lason Leung/Unsplash
Lemons and garlic ferment in jars. Photo by Lason Leung/Unsplash

As the foodies among you already know, the pickle-making process can be fast or slow, and the method you choose dictates the flavor, health benefits and shelf life. The faster process is true pickling, while the slower process relies on fermentation. This means that not all pickles are, in fact, actually pickled. Think about it.

Most of the pickles in grocery stores are quick pickles, which are fruits or vegetables marinated in an acidic bath that probably includes vinegar, sugar, water, salt and spices. Quick pickles (quickles?) have to be refrigerated unless they’re canned and heat processed, which entails heating the pickle jars to high enough temperatures to kill any microbes that could cause spoilage. The pickles on grocery shelves are of this variety, and so are most home-canned pickled vegetables.

Try your hand at quick pickles with this easy recipe that works with virtually any vegetable you have lying around.

Slow pickles are the result of a long fermentation process, egged on with only salt and maybe some water. The fermentation process is powered by harmless bacteria that produce the acid responsible for the tart flavor. Kimchi, sauerkraut and real kosher dills are all fermented rather than pickled, and therefore offer the digestive health benefits of live, active cultures.

You can buy fermented products at the grocery store, but you have to be smart about it. Look in the refrigerated section and check the label for words like “fermented,” “probiotic” and “live and active cultures.”

You can also make fermented pickles at home. But should you? Derek Dellinger, author and self-described “fermented man,” sure thinks so. He decided to swear off all but fermented foods for all of 2014, and it panned out so well he wrote a book about it, reporting, “I did not fall sick at all during my year of eating bacteria and mold.”