It finally happened: I made pickles. It is such a Jewish category of food – and so tasty – and I had simply skipped it. No longer.
Jews have been preserving food since Jews have … been Jews. The pickles that we enjoy today are all ultimately related to methods of food preservation from ancient times. In the Ancient Near East, people Jewish and non-Jewish alike dried, salted, and fermented foods for long-term use. (Some ancient ferments like feseekh in Egypt are still with us today.) Cabbage has been fermented in Eastern Europe since ancient times, and foods have been preserved in vinegar or whey from Iceland to India to Ethiopia since at least the medieval era. As salt became cheaper because of colonialism and expanded trade networks, pickling in Europe and North Africa became far more affordable and thus common. New pickles often joined existing pickles and preserved foods – pickles eggplants alongside preserved lemons in Morocco, pickled radishes alongside sauerkraut in Eastern Europe, pickled herring alongside … other pickled herring in Germany. The invention of the boiling water bath certainly helped. By the early 19th century, a scepter was haunting Europe – the scepter of many preserved vegetables.
Even today, each Jewish community’s pickles have a strong toehold on Jewish tables around the world. In Ashkenazi communities, cucumber pickles are found seemingly everywhere – at Shabbat tables, in sandwiches, as snacks. In the United States, the “kosher dill” pickle has transcended ethnic boundaries to become something of a regional food in the Northeast. (I remember a Catholic friend from New Jersey who brought back a jar to the United Kingdom from a visit home.) In other countries, but especially France and Israel, meanwhile, many preserved Mizrahi foods are popular: pickled eggplants from Iraq, preserved lemons from Morocco, and preserved onions from everywhere among them. Today, in any food shop catering to Israeli expatriates, you can find cans of Kvutzat Yavne pickles for sale. At all stages of assimilation and cultural and culinary change, pickles have accompanied Jews for the ride – even if the pickles themselves have changed.
In an age of mass pickling and a stronger food supply (both of which are good things), fewer people are pickling. I do not hold by arguments that something is lost here: let’s not romanticize a past in which death by food poisoning was common and nutrition more lacking than today. This is a view that Rachel Laudan correctly described as ahistorical in her wonderful book Cuisine and Empire. What is true, though, is that pickling is a lot of fun. The work is satisfying, and a new generation of millennial picklers are bringing new flavors to the table. Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, for example, included not only classical Ashkenazi cucumber pickles and sauerkraut in their book The Gefilte Manifesto, but also kimchi-like sauerkraut and shallots in red wine. Not authentic at all, totally Jewish, and stunningly delicious. Other cultures, too, are playing with their pickles – I recently found a recipe for Iranian torshi that used Fuji apples!
In this recipe I used some pickling spices from South Africa. The blend includes turmeric and paprika, which lend the pickles I made a spicy undertone and a bright color. You, of course, can have your pickles as plain as possible. Remember to use the freshest vegetables for the best flavor. This recipe is very easy since the fermentation and preservation all take place in the refrigerator. This recipe is suitable for canning – remember to follow safe canning guidelines.
Easy Refrigerator Pickles
Makes one quart
2 cups chopped and peeled vegetables (I used kohlrabi and turnips for one pickle, onions for another, cucumbers for another, and lettuce – yes, lettuce – for the last. The recipe is easily scalable.)
1 cup water
1 cup vinegar (any should do)
1 tablespoon coarse salt (do not use table salt)
1 tablespoon pickling spices of choice (optional)
- Wash thoroughly and dry a liter- or quart-sized container with a lid. This can be a jar, Tupperware, former peanut butter vessel… you name it.
- Stuff the chopped vegetables into the container, leaving room between them and at the top for the brine.
- In a saucepan, blend the remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. This makes the brine.
- When the brine is boiling, stir again, then turn off the heat.
- Ladle the brine into the container with the vegetables until full, leaving a bit of space at the top. Close the container completely.
- Place the container in the back of the refrigerator for three days at least before eating. The pickles keep for up to six weeks.
Remember to can safely if you can!
Thank you to Evan Bialostozky and Jessie Thompson for selling me the vegetables used in this recipe.
Typical Jewish pickles are lacto-fermented in salt brine, not pickled in vinegar. And I don’t understand why these vinegar pickled vegetables couldn’t be water-bath canned.
Thanks for the comment! I’ll update the text now regarding canning.
As I mentioned to you on Facebook, I specifically chose to do a vinegar pickle since it’s what tends to go a bit better with the pickling spice, and also because I’m planning to do a lacto-fermented sauerkraut later this summer for the blog (using the recipes of Sandor Katz and Jeff Yoskowitz as a base). As it happens, vinegar pickling is actually quite traditional in many Sephardic communities – it’s a technique that many Jews brought with them from Spain after the Expulsion in 1492. Vinegar pickling is still more common for many Jewish communities – salt brine pickling is much more common in Ashkenazi communities which is where we get the “Jewish” pickles we’re used to thinking of. That said, there are some examples that go the other way – salt-brined turnips are fairly common in some Sephardic communities, and vinegar-based pickles are traditional in German Jewry. Claudia Roden has some excellent recipes in this regard.
There’s also a tradition of pickling foods in whey that I’m trying to find more information on – most of what I have found relates to the practice as found in Iceland.
I enjoyed reaading this