Once again, we’re deep into summer, a time when all the squash, beans and cucumbers at the farmers market look too tempting to resist — until you have to figure out how to transform that colorful produce into meals.
Here’s one way to chow down on summer’s bounty that doesn’t involve turning on the oven at all: Pickle a bunch of vegetables and fruits (yes, fruits, too!) and add some crunch and zing to your hot-weather meals.
I’m a pickling proponent for several reasons. One, it’s a low-effort, high-reward activity. Chop some vegetables and put them in a jar, boil up some tangy brine and pour it in, and refrigerate. Wait a few hours and then crunch away.
Two, you don’t need special equipment to do it. Sure, you can preserve food with a more advanced water-bath canning method, especially if you’re planning to save your summer pickles for up to a year. But for quick gratification, you don’t need to go all in on canning.
And finally, pickling is a way to bring lots of flavor into simple meals. Pickles aren’t just for snacking straight from the jar or for topping a straight-off-the-grill cheeseburger, though I fully support both options.
They’re versatile add-ins to so many favorite dishes: salads and sandwiches of all kinds, grain bowls, tacos, pizza and more. Chop them and add to a salsa. Blend them into a sauce. Pile them over grilled chicken or fish. Pickles are everything!
And yes, you can pickle just about any produce that comes your way. Carrots, cucumbers, beets, green beans, zucchini, onions and shallots, peppers, cauliflower, broccoli, and even fruits such as whole cherry tomatoes, grapes, cherries or peaches can be pickled.
Here’s how I keep my refrigerator stocked all summer long.
When refrigerator pickling, you don’t need to put up pounds of produce at a time. I like to experiment, making small-batch recipes in a 16-ounce (1-pint) canning jar or a 12-ounce leftover jam or nut butter jar.
The amount of produce that fits in a jar this size will vary based on what you want to pickle, but as a general rule of thumb you can pack in about a half-pound of chopped or sliced produce. And this might sound obvious, but although this is not a water-bath method, it is still important to make sure your jar is clean before using it.
Vinegar, kosher salt and water are the three basic elements that make up a brine. With those ingredients, you can pickle just about anything in your pantry. I add a bit of granulated sugar to round out the flavor and make it a bit less harshly acidic.
Here’s the basic ratio I use for a savory pickling brine, which makes enough to fill a 16-ounce jar:
½ cup vinegar
½ cup water
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
Add the ingredients to a small (1-quart) saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally. While the liquid heats, fill a jar with the produce of your choice.
Carefully pour the hot liquid into the jar, making sure it covers the produce completely. Seal and refrigerate for at least 8 hours before sampling.
This pickling ratio is a starting point, not the final word. Because the pickles aren’t being water-bath canned for room-temperature storage, there’s room to play with the elements as long as the pickles stay refrigerated.
For a stronger vinegar flavor in your pickles, increase the amount of vinegar and reduce the amount of water. If you’re feeling bold, do an all-vinegar pickle. However, don’t go below a 1:1 ratio on vinegar to water or the solution will be too weak.
White vinegar is the most versatile vinegar to use for pickling because it’s a blank canvas. However, apple cider vinegar or red or white wine vinegar can be swapped in for other flavor options. Balsamic vinegar is usually too intense for pickling, though you could try using white balsamic vinegar in place of half your usual vinegar to add sweetness and depth.
If you want to make a sweet pickling liquid for onions or jalapeños, switch the ratio of sugar to salt or increase the amount of sugar to ¼ cup per every cup of liquid.
As for herbs and spices, experiment with both fresh and dried options. Dill is a classic, but you can also try thyme, rosemary, sage, tarragon and others from the garden. Whole spices, such as peppercorns, mustard, bay leaves and cloves are common, but you can also add whole or crushed chile peppers, cinnamon sticks or star anise.
Refrigerator pickles can be a condiment or a vegetable unto themselves when added to other recipes.
On sandwiches: Layer pickles on your sandwich the same way you would add lettuce or tomatoes. A vegetarian pickled broccoli sandwich with cheese and greens on hearty bread is a filling meal in its own right, or you can add pickled vegetables in place of the usual kraut or slaw on a Reuben sandwich.
Or finely chop homemade pickled vegetables and add them to your favorite tuna salad, chicken salad or chickpea salad recipe, then stuff into a pita or wrap. (This is also an excellent way to boost a store-bought salad.)
In salads: Pickled fruit makes a summer salad so much more fun than an everyday lunch salad. Try a crumbly cheese such as goat or feta with pickled grapes or cherries, a handful of nuts, and salad greens. Or add pickled vegetables such as green beans or cauliflower to a grain salad or grain bowl as a topping.
If you have a few leftover pickled vegetables in a jar, chop them into small pieces, then blend in a food processor or blender with any remaining brine and olive oil to make an easy homemade salad dressing.
Pickles on pizza? Yes, please! Banana peppers are one of my favorite pizza toppings, and I’ve used that as a jumping-off point to experiment with other tangy vegetables on my grilled pizzas. Try pickled cauliflower, peppers, cherry tomatoes or thinly sliced squash.
Pickles in pasta? Sure! While pickled vegetables are always welcome in pasta salad (and potato salad, for that matter), they also bring an unexpected zing to hot pasta recipes. Blend a can of whole or crushed tomatoes with chopped pickled zucchini for flavor. Bonus points if the pickled zucchini is a little spicy! Or add pickled shallots, broccoli or peppers to pesto-sauced noodles.
There’s always pickled red onions for burrito bowls, tacos or any favorite Tex-Mex dish, pickled beets blended into hummus for a gorgeous variation, or finely diced pickled vegetables blended with cream cheese and sour cream for a cool dip.
And when it’s too hot to think of anything else to do, there’s always “snack dinner” with a variety of pickled vegetables to save the day.