There's nothing more satisfying than hearing the seal "pop" on a new jar of ice-cold pickles. Typically, that's when friends and family have gathered on a summer day, burgers are sizzling on the grill, and lemonade is chilling. A jar of supermarket gherkins might do, but don't deny yourself the pleasure—and the superfresh, homespun flavor—of making your own.
Refrigerator pickles are easier than other pickling methods. To get going, gather up a few ingredients, starting with the star of the show: cucumbers. If homegrown cucumbers are not an option, buy organic ones at a local farmers' market or food co-op; many chain grocery stores also carry them. Supermarket cukes often have an edible wax coating to help them retain moisture and give them a glossy sheen. Because the wax coating prevents cucumbers from absorbing the pickling liquid well, look for cukes with dull skins—a sure sign they haven't been waxed.
If using homegrown cucumbers, pick them first thing in the morning to get the best flavor. Select cukes that are free of mold, insect damage, blemishes, and soft spots. Plan to make the pickles within a couple of days of harvest. Seed catalogs often recommend which varieties are best for pickling.
Thoroughly wash the cucumbers and assemble the spices. Have fun with the process, trying new flavors with each new batch of pickles. To add a little kick, toss in a clove of fresh garlic, a pinch of crushed red pepper, or a few chopped jalapeños. For a bigger kick, add a habanero. (Just be sure to wear gloves while working with these powerful little peppers.) Ancho peppers will add a peppery boldness, while chipotle chiles (made from dried jalapeños) will give the pickles a rich and spicy smoked flavor. It's all good.
Another nice thing about refrigerator pickles is that they don't require a special technique or container. Vintage jars that show off the ingredients make for the loveliest presentations, and can be found for just a dollar or two at flea markets (just make sure to wash the jars and lids well before using them to store food).
Making pickles can be the start of a new family tradition with your kids, grandkids, or best friends. In only a few hours, you'll have beautiful jars of crunchy, delicious pickles ready to serve or give as gifts. To help you on your way, savor this recipe that hails from the Rodale Kitchen.
1 pound medium cucumbers
3 cloves garlic
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon whole mustard seed
1 teaspoon fresh dill weed
1 whole dried bay leaf
2/3 cup organic light brown sugar
6½ tablespoons white distilled vinegar
6½ tablespoons white-wine vinegar
¾ cup water
1. Cut the cucumbers into spears or slices and place in a 2-quart container or jar with a lid. Add the garlic, peppercorns, mustard seed, dill weed, and bay leaf.
2. Stir together the brown sugar, vinegars, and water until all the sugar is dissolved. Pour the vinegar mixture over the cucumbers and shake the jar well to combine. Cover and chill. For fullest flavor, wait at least 24 hours before serving. These pickles will keep up to 3 months in the refrigerator.
Makes 2 quarts (about 18 servings)
Pickles in History
The Well-Traveled Pickle
The pickle as we know it is thought to have originated in India, where cucumbers were first grown. The crisp, fermented delight gradually made its way to Egypt and the Mediterranean Basin. It's thought that the Romans introduced the first pickles throughout Europe, where they rapidly gained popularity. Pickles later went on to play an important role in Columbus's discovery of America in 1492: Transoceanic voyages were often jeopardized because crews suffered from scurvy—the result of a lack of fresh fruits and vegetables. To solve that problem, Amerigo Vespucci—the explorer for whom our continent was named—made sure that the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria each had a cargo loaded with vitamin C-rich pickles, ones he may even have made himself: He was reportedly a fine pickle maker.