Make a Pickle Brine That Makes You Happy
My daughter drinks pickle juice through a straw. Not enough to make her sick, just enough to make a point. That being said, the brine is where you find all the flavor in a pickle jar. The crispy cucumbers in the mix—while they add texture in their own right and an ever so slight garden fresh flash—are really just conduits conveying the genius that a tart sweet brine with just the right mix of spice offers.
Pickles done right are a welcome addition to any event, summertime or otherwise. But since there are as many pickle recipes as there are aunties in the world, how does one know which to run with as the pickling cukes are busting out all over your garden?
Pickling experts Cathy Barrow (author of Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry) and Marisa McClellan (author of Food in Jars, Preserving by the Pint and Naturally Sweet Food in Jars) have a few, loose guidelines for tailoring the pickle brine to your very own tastes.
A vinegar-based pickle brine is like a vinaigrette without the oil, explains Barrow. “Play with the herbs and spices as you might for a salad dressing,” she suggests.
But Barrow cautions DIY pickle makers to be careful when changing up vinegars destined to become pickle juice. “For shelf stability you need a five percent vinegar, and some fruit and wine vinegars will not meet that requirement.”
If you’re trying to conjure up pickles of your past, Barrow suggests you start reading the labels of the pickles you find that remind you of that particular taste memory. Most pickles have the classic elements of mustard and celery seeds, allspice and peppercorns. But reading labels gives you an idea of which elements are taken away and replaced with things like ginger, bay, cinnamon and coriander, Barrow explains.
If you want to create a unique pickle, think about the story you want to tell with them and choose the herbs, spices, vinegars and sweeteners accordingly, says McClellan. “They all become part of the narrative.”
Typically, when it comes to matching herbs and spices, McClellan thinks about the flavor profile she wants for the finished pickle. For pickles with an Asian edge, she’ll combine rice vinegar with honey, mint or cilantro, peppercorns, chilies and green onion. If McClellan is going for a straight sour pickle, she combines a sharp vinegar with mustard seed, dill seed, black peppercorns and garlic most of the time. For classic American pickles, she’ll mix a traditional pickling spice (see recipe) with apple cider vinegar and a little honey or agave to round out the edges.
And remember that while you’re on the quest for your perfect pickle, take baby steps. Make four jars, not 40 when experimenting. You can always make more if it turns out you’ve produced your perfect pickle.