When it comes to finding fresh, fun ways to pickle your garden's bounty, don't let cucumbers have all the fun. Learning how to pickle vegetables — or even fruit — will offer a zingy condiment for everything from sandwiches to salads. You have more ways to enjoy and preserve your harvest, plus colorful jars of pickles that can be shared with family and friends.
What Is Pickling?
Pickling is a method of using the acid in vinegar, plus salt and seasonings, to preserve almost any vegetable or fruit. It can be as simple as making no-fuss refrigerator pickles, which can take less than 20 minutes to slice and season and a few days to sit and pickle. They can last up to a month in the refrigerator.
Traditional canning requires more effort, but it can preserve vegetable pickles so they're shelf-stable for at least a year. This process requires boiling your jars of vegetable pickles. Boiling destroys enzymes and microorganisms that occur naturally on vegetables. These microorganisms would help break them down if you decided to chuck excess vegetables into a compost pile as opposed to pickling your vegetable harvest.
The canning process also eliminates oxygen and preserves pickled vegetables and fruit with a vacuum seal. You'll know it worked when boiled jars cool and lids make a satisfying "ping."
What Can Be Pickled?
Cucumbers rank as the most popular pickle choice, but most vegetables can be pickled, including jalapeños, eggplant, garlic, corn and tomatoes. If you're feeling creative, you can also pickle plums, peaches, apples and watermelon rind.
You can mix and match vegetables, too, adding thin crinkle-cut carrot and kohlrabi sticks to jars of dill cucumbers. For your end-of-season hodge-podge of vegetables, find a recipe for chow chow relish or an Italian giardiniera.
How to Prep Your Produce for Pickling
Make sure to scrub or peel the produce you're pickling, and remove any soft or damaged spots. Cut large vegetables or fruits into slices, spears or quarters to pack them into jars efficiently, but not so tightly that the brine and spices can't surround each piece and work their magic.
Mixing and matching different colors for vegetable pickles creates attractive garnishes and side dishes. Blend yellow, cream, red and orange carrots (purple carrots and beans may lose their color if boiled for canning), yellow and green string beans, or golden and red beets.
Decide on Your Favorite Pickle Spices
Vegetable pickles, such as easy red onions, can be preserved with simple brines using just salt, sugar and vinegar (most frequently white or apple cider vinegar). If you want to punch up the flavor, classic cucumber pickle combinations, such as garlic and fresh dill, work with many vegetables, as well as spices used for sweet bread-and-butter pickle recipes: celery and mustard seeds, cinnamon sticks, allspice berries, hot pepper flakes, cinnamon and cloves. Think dill string beans, peppercorn-and-mustard carrots, hot peppers, sweet-and-sour radishes and beets.
You can play with more modern combinations, too. McVicker likes to add chai spices to nectarines. If you like roasting cauliflower with curry and cumin, try it with cauliflower pickles, or mix turmeric, smoked paprika and cumin to onion and okra.
How to Serve Vegetable Pickles
Pickled vegetables offer colorful condiments and texture for sandwiches, wraps or salads. You can also offer them as a stand-alone side dish, or add them to a charcuterie platter or other happy hour nibbles for a pop of color, flavor and nutrients.
McVicker suggests chopping pickled carrot or cauliflower for heavier soups made with cream or cheese. A little brine can also be splashed into it.
"That acidity tastes good with anything creamy or fatty," she said. Pickled beans or carrot sticks can also punch up a Bloody Mary, and pickled fruits can add a colorful surprise to mixed drinks.
Reuse Your Pickle Brine
If you're overwhelmed by learning how to pickle vegetables, here's an easy hack: If you have leftover brine from store-bought or farmer's market pickles, heat up the liquid in a saucepan. Fill the empty jar or container with freshly blanched vegetables such as green beans. Pour hot brine over them and let the vegetables pickle for a few days. You can do this with peeled hard-boiled eggs, too, for a cool summer snack. Toss the brine after reusing it once. You can also use leftover pickle brine in place of vinegar in a homemade salad vinaigrette.
Learn How to Preserve Food Safely
If you're new to canning or need a refresher, download instruction guides and recipes from reputable sites such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation or through the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Ball's FreshPreserving.com for produce-specific instructions and recipes to ensure your food is processed safely.
Get creative when thinking about how to pickle vegetables. Browse Burpee's herb selection to find exciting herbs to add to your vegetable pickles.