You know that feeling when you open the fridge, and there’s “nothing” there? Or you want one last thing to make a meal complete, but you’re not sure what that might be?
Homemade pickles are the answer. They are also the answer to dealing with a garden crop that seems have ripened all at once, or making the most of the seasonal bounty at your local farmers market.
It’s deeply satisfying, it’s budget-friendly, and it can be far quicker than you might think. Some quick pickles – quick-pickled onions are a classic – can be ready to eat in around an hour. But delightfully, some quickly made pickles could last for months, even a year.
Pickling is a weekly ritual at Acre, a farm-to-table restaurant in the heart of Sydney at Camperdown Commons, a precinct that also includes Pocket City Farms, where a former bowling green has been turned into a 1200-square-metre social enterprise market garden.
Every Tuesday, Acre head chef Ludo Gendre and his team pickle a brace of produce; some pickles will appear on the menu the following week, after they’ve had a little time to mature, while other batches are to keep excess produce to be used further down the track. Most are vinegar pickles, while a few are fermented, like the hot chilli sauce the kitchen was making this week, or the batches of kimchi made to preserve a range of garden greens.
And that’s the really great thing about pickling – whether you’ve never pickled in your life or you’re a regular looking to widen your horizons, there’s a pickle for you.
“There's as many recipes as there's people pickling,” says Gendre. “It's just a matter of your own taste and what you like. There’s not really a golden rule. So, I like my pickle very sharp but I know other people like it quite sweet.”
"At PCF we’re a team of four and we love eating and making pickles and ferments," says Pocket City Farms community co-ordinator Madison Roland-Evans.
"Pickling produce is a skill we all should have – if you are trying to live a life closer to the seasons, the ability to preserve abundance over summer will get you through the winter! Buying in-season produce tastes enormously better, and while there’s lots of it, you may as well pickle it."
Pocket City Farms sells produce to several cafes and restaurants in Sydney's inner west, and also runs workshops – keep an eye on their website for details of a quick-pickle class they are planning to hold in December.
The almost-instant quick pickle
“An easy pickle to do is a gherkin. And it's one of the quickest because in a couple of weeks it's done,” says Gendre, who grew up in a village on the west coast of France, and came to Australia 13 years ago.
“In France the main pickles are cornichon – so gherkins, really. So we used to do a bit of that when I was a child and we also had samphire – sea herbs – that we pickled a lot, because I was by the sea.
“We had a big garden that is actually pretty much the same size as the one here and back then everything was homemade. I don't remember going to a supermarket to buy any vegetables, ever.”
Give gherkin and cucumber pickling a go with this recipe for garlic and dill pickles using whole baby cucumbers (these are best after a few days in the fridge, and will keep for a few weeks if refrigerated); make crunchy bread and butter pickles using the waterbath method (these will last for up to a year, but may start to lose their crunch after six months); or for a quicker sliced cucumber pickle, try this dill and caraway flavoured version, ready to eat in a few hours. Or ring the changes with miso cucumbers, where cucumber chunks are cured briefly with a miso, rice vinegar, mini, sake and garlic paste.
If you want a same-day pickle, Gendre suggests onions. “It's pretty much instant pickling. After a couple of hours it is done. Or you can keep it for much longer, but the flavor you get just after a couple of hours is great.”
Give it a go with this red onion and lime juice pickle, which takes only 5-10 minutes’ work, and can be served up in half an hour; this small-batch red onion and red wine vinegar pickle; or this apple cider vinegar, red onion, caraway and bay leaf version. These all use sliced onions for a quick result; if you’re after a recipe for whole pickled onions, try these sweet-and-sour pickled onions, which will be ready to crack open and crunch into in about two weeks.
Use up all the bits and pieces
Kitchen scrap pickles are not only one of the easiest pickles you can make – fast to do and no jar sterilising to think about - but a great way to use up any veg left in the fridge at the end of the week, or to turn cauliflower, beetroot, broccoli or kale stems into something delicious. It only takes about 15 minutes of hands-on time, and then 20 minutes or so cooking time, before you can pop these in the fridge. They’ll last for a couple of weeks.
This Italian giardinieri is another great way to use up small amounts of different vegetables, and is ready to eat in a few days.
Gut-friendly fermented pickles
“The process of fermentation preserves ingredients, making them safe to eat for weeks, months or in some cases years beyond their fresh state,” writes fermentation pioneer Holly Davis in her excellent book, Ferment.
“This is a massive benefit if you live without refrigeration, but in this day and age why bother to ferment foods? Variety, complex flavours and textures or to preserve an excess of seasonal produce may all be reason enough, but there are other benefits,” Davis says, pointing to the possible role of our gut bacteria in weight regulation, our immune systems, digestion and the absorption of nutrients from the food we eat.
Dr Michael Mosley is another fan of traditionally fermented foods.
“For general good gut health, and to acquire a range of helpful bacteria, fermented foods are an excellent way forward,” Mosley says of an experiment he and Dr Saleyha Ahsan conducted in Trust Me I’m A Doctor, comparing probiotic supplements and fermented food.
Kimchi is not just for cabbage
We most commonly see Korea’s traditional condiment made with cabbage, but as Michel Roux discovers when he visits The Ethicurean in episode 3 of Hidden Restaurants (Wednesday 26 September 8.35pm on SBS, and then SBS On Demand), kimchi is a flavour-packed way to preserve all kinds of garden greens.
The Ethicurean is a restaurant in a former potting shed, surrounded by gardens, where the guiding aim is to use what they have, and cook with the seasons – so much so, in fact, that the menu changes twice daily. To give them more options in winter, a lot of spring and summer bounty is pickled or fermented, and it's one of the things the restaurant is known for.
When they have more lettuce than they need for salads, for example, it’s preserved in jars, including a lettuce kim chi that has Roux and The Ethicurean’s Matthew Pennington trying to keep a straight face for the camera, pretending they aren’t in pain, after trying a particularly fiery example.
It’s a technique Gendre uses at Acre, too.
“We can use pretty much anything for kimchi,” he says. “Cabbage, a lot of greens ... Out of the garden we have sometimes boy choy and pak choy, so we can use that as well… and lettuce. All the greens.”
Pickles aren’t always sharp and bitey
The endless variations possible with pickles aren’t just driven by what produce is in season. “Sometimes we want sweet pickles, sometimes we want very, very sharp pickles,” says Gendre. The different styles suit different dishes.
“Sometimes we would add a bit of sugar to our pickling liquid, a bit more than usual,” he says. “For example, when we do capsicum, that is already quite sweet, and we add a bit of sugar to it, because we use it with our nduja [a spreadable pork salami], which is very very spicy, so it needs a bit of sweet to balance the dish.”
The pickling liquid is a base that everyone can make their own – add more or less sugar, use different kinds of vinegar, add extras such as onion or herbs.
“There are as many recipes as there's people pickling. Really, it’s the same base but some people prefer malt vinegar, some people prefer white vinegar, some people prefer apple cider vinegar. … You can add garlic, you can add pieces of onion, a bit of sugar.”
Try different levels of sweetness with recipes such as Dutch atjar, a sweet-and-sour pickle made with cabbage, carrot, cauliflower, chillies, ginger and turmeric; pickled cherries with sweet spices; or pickled red grapes.
And here’s how to keep them
Some quick pickles are made for the fridge and are best eaten within a week or two, but a lot of pickles will last up to a year. Be guided by what the recipe says, but if you’ve bottled a pantry pickle that’s made to last for months or even a year or two, the important thing is to store it in a cool, dark place.
“Light is going to change the colour and even those that are okay to eat, they just won't look like you want to eat them,” says Gendre.
Given how good they look and taste, we suspect most pickles will be consumed well before their ‘best by’ date! Make a few different kinds, with different vegetables and pickling liquids, and you’ll have great options for adding that ‘something right’ to all kinds of dishes, from buddha bowls to antipasto platters.
See more of The Ethicurian and its team's passion for preserving in Hidden Restaurants with Michel Roux Jr Wednesday 26 September at 8.35pm on SBS, then via SBS On Demand. For more pickling inspiration, see SBS Food’s pickle recipe collection.
Use pickled seaweed as you would any other pickle. It’s great with a sharp cheese, cured meats or to enrich a broth-based soup.
These pickled eggs are great alongside cured meats, in a sandwich or added to a salad for substance.
Most commercial gari is full of additives, so I make a big batch in the summer from our field ginger. Late-season ginger will not show the characteristically lovely pink of new ginger. Nonetheless, the pickles are tasty as a palate cleanser or a quick bright bite before dinner — and of course to accompany sushi.
For anyone who grows chilli, pickling is a great a way to preserve a fruit laden tree. Mexicans make a lovely, fruity tasting pickle, usually with gentle notes from pineapple vinegar or cane sugar vinegar. This recipe, loaded with herbs and crunchy vegetables should be a welcome addition to any meal, be it Mexican or not.