Make Your Own Pickles
A little while ago we discussed how your catering business can benefit if you use made-from-scratch condiments. Your customers will be impressed by the originality of your approach and they will appreciate the homemade flavor of the food that you produce in your very own kitchen. Now that you’ve perfected your ketchup and mayonnaise, it’s time to move on to another perennial crowd-pleaser: pickles. Making these delicious treats and serving them fresh and crispy at your next event, will put you on the map as the Pickle Maven of the catering world.
Pickles Are Hot
According to the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” survey for 2018, homemade pickles are one of the most popular food trends right now. Crunchy and sour, pickled cucumbers – or, simply, pickles – can be eaten on their own or used in sandwiches and salads to add a fabulous tang. Street food in general, and pickles in particular, are having a moment, and the green wonders are being reinvented in all colors, sizes, textures, and flavors.
But, you may ask, why make my own pickles? The real question is, why not? When produce is in season – at peak flavor and in top-quality, inexpensive abundance – it makes sense to grab it while you can and make it last. By making homemade pickles, not only are you taking advantage of the monetary savings, you’re showing clients that you can take a trend to a higher level, mixing the pickle craze with the make-your-own-everything trend that is apparently here to stay.
The History of Pickles
Pickles have been around for centuries, dating as far back as 2030 BC when cucumbers, which originated in India, were pickled in the Tigris Valley as a way of preserving their nutrients long after the cucumber season. Ancient sources refer not only to the nutritional benefits of pickling, but also claim that pickles were a beauty aid, and it is said that Cleopatra attributed her good looks to a generous diet of pickles. Moving along in time, we find that pickles were a common condiment and snack in England during the Middle Ages and Shakespeare even sprinkled his plays with references to pickles.
Pickles were commonly used as food for sailors, as their long shelf life provided seamen with much-needed nutrition on long trips. They were brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus who grew cucumbers in Haiti, so they could be pickled to provide his sailors with food. The 16th century brought Dutch farmers into the cucumber market, where they began growing them in the New York City area, pickling them and selling them out of barrels. In the late 18th century we find that Heinz, the ketchup king, entered the pickle market by introducing his pickles at the World’s Fair. Using a clever marketing ploy, he attracted customers to his out of the way, second floor booth by giving out “pickle pins” to attract customers to his out of the way booth to taste his newly created pickles.
In 19th-century Eastern Europe, dill pickles were a dietary staple for people living in the Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Russia, as the sharp flavor was a tasty addition to the bland potato-based diet of those Eastern European countries. When a heavy influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in New York City during the late 1800s and early 1900s, the newcomers introduced kosher dill pickles to the United States, thus establishing New York City as the center of the pickle market where cucumbers were loaded into large wooden barrels and spices such as dill, garlic, salt, and water were added. They were then left to ferment for periods of time ranging from a few weeks to several months. A shorter fermenting time produced brighter-green half sour pickles; and a longer fermenting time resulted in full sour pickles. These are the types we have grown accustomed to eating.
Pickles are Healthy Reversions to a Simpler Time
There are two main methods of pickling. One technique uses vinegar or some form of acid to create fresh pickles, while the less common preparation uses salt to make fermented vegetables, as is done with cabbage to make sauerkraut. Both preparations offer health benefits: fresh pickles maintain many of the cucumbers’ nutrients, while the probiotic growth in fermented vegetables is valuable to help maintain our gut’s balance.
In addition to the pickle’s health benefits, there is an overall trend among foodies to embrace an old-world, artisanal, do-it-yourself approach to cooking and food preparation. Therefore, the homemade pickle trend can be attributed to the pickle’s significant health benefits and the food’s nostalgic deliciousness.
A Word About Canning
Canning is a safe method for preserving food, if practiced properly. The canning process involves placing foods in jars (yes, it’s called canning, not jarring) and heating them to a temperature that destroys micro-organisms that cause food to spoil. During this heating process, air is driven out of the jar and, as it cools, a vacuum seal is formed. This vacuum seal prevents air from getting back into the product, bringing with it contaminating micro-organisms.
There are two safe ways to process and can vegetables: the boiling water bath method and the pressure method. The boiling water bath method is safe for pickles. In this method, jars of pickles are heated in boiling water and cooked for a short amount of time. (Many other vegetables do not contain enough acid to can using the simple boiling water method; they need the high heat of a pressure canner to safely ward off contaminants.)
Perfect the Art of Pickle-Making
When pickling, there are a number of variables – temperature, time, container type, and vinegar content to name but a few – and trial and error is a given, at least at first. It’s not always easy to find flavor and texture consistency. There are many recipes and variations for the “perfect” pickle, and when you find one that works – and if you store the pickles properly – you will have delicious homemade pickles that will last for as long as a year, and, that your catering clients will go wild over.
Choosing the Best Cucumber
Kirby cucumbers are the classic pickling cucumber — they hold up better than other varieties of cucumbers during pickling, remaining firm and crunchy instead of becoming too soft. Persian cucumbers also work — they have a thinner skin and are the perfect size for packing into pint jars. No matter what cucumber you use, make sure they are ripe and firm. Avoid limp or wrinkly cucumbers and look for those that are neither blemished nor bruised. Wash them before pickling and air dry.
Pickling Made Easy
Professional pickle-makers differ on what comprises the best basic brine, and recipes abound on the Internet. Salt, along with possible other ingredients like mustard seed, bay, celery seed, garlic, and pepper corns, can also contribute to the final product. However, what is most critical is the amount of vinegar; if you don’t have the proper vinegar-to-water ratio with a pH of less than 4.6, you can’t preserve.
From the canning side, there are two kinds of pickles: refrigerator pickles and processed pickles. When you make refrigerator pickles, also known as “quick pickles,” you pack your cucumbers into a jar (or other container) with spices, and pour hot pickling liquid over the vegetables. These pickles are allowed to cool in the counter and are stored in the fridge once they’ve returned to room temperature.
Processed or preserved pickles begin much the same way that refrigerator pickles do. Cucumbers and spices are packed into clean mason jars, which are then filled with a vinegar-based pickling liquid. The jars are carefully tapped to ensure that all the trapped air bubbles get released. Lids and rings are attached and then the jars are processed in a boiling water bath. Once processed, these pickles can be kept on the shelf for up to a year. The downside of this method is that the hot water processing will cook the cucumbers a bit which can sometimes give the pickles a softer texture. If super-crunchy pickles are your aim, skip the processing step and just keep the jars in the fridge — they won’t last as long as processed pickles but they’ll keep refrigerated for several weeks.
Make Your Own Pickles
The Kitchn website offers a great recipe for dill pickles that you’ll want to save and use over and over again.
- 1 1/2 pounds Kirby or Persian cucumbers
- 4 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
- 2 teaspoons dill seed
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, optional
- 1 cup cider vinegar
- 1 cup water
- 1 1/2 tablespoons pickling salt or kosher salt
- If you are planning to can your pickles for long-term storage, bring a large pot of water to a boil and sterilize the jars and their lids. If you are planning to make refrigerator pickles, simply washing the jars and lids is fine.
- Wash and dry the cucumbers. Trim away the blossom end of the cucumber. You can leave the pickles whole or cut them into spears.
- Divide the garlic, dill seed, and red pepper flakes (if using) between the jars.
- Pack the pickles into the jars, trimming the ends if they stand more than 1/2 inch below the top of the jar. Pack them in as tightly as you can without smashing the cucumbers.
- Combine the vinegar, water, and salt in a sauce pan over high heat. Bring to a rolling boil. Pour the brine over the pickles, filling each jar to within 1/2-inch of the top. Gently tap the jars against the counter a few times to remove all the air bubbles. Top off with more pickling brine if necessary.
- Place the lids over the jars and screw on the rings until tight.
- For longer storage, place the jars in a boiling pot of water. When the water comes back to a boil, boil for 5 minutes and remove the jars immediately.
- Let the jars cool to room temperature. If you have processed the jars in the water bath, they can be stored on the shelf. If unprocessed, store the pickles in the refrigerator. The pickles will improve with flavor as they age — try to wait at least 48 hours before opening.
- Canned/jarred pickles will keep for at least a year on the shelf and for several weeks in the refrigerator once opened; refrigerator pickles will keep for several weeks.
- To make a larger batch, increase each ingredient, keeping the ratio of vinegar, water and salt the same, and make enough to top off all your jars of pickles.
Add Homemade Pickles to Your Catering Repertoire
As a caterer, you want to give your clients a unique and special experience. This includes the best food but also the freshest and healthiest ingredients. By making your own delicious homemade pickles, you’re telling your clients and guests that you care enough to put in the effort to create a superior product. No one who tastes your made-from-scratch pickles will doubt that you’re the caterer of the moment and the one to hire ASAP.