Quick pickles, otherwise known as refrigerator pickles or quick-process pickles, are a fast and easy way to punch up any dish that you’re making, from sandwiches to cheese boards to a barbecue roast. As long as you know the basics of the process, almost anything can be quick pickled — and, even if it sounds weird, it may be delicious.
Quick-process pickles differ from standard fermented pickles because the quick pickling process uses acetic acid from vinegar rather than lactic acid from fermentation. These pickles are ideal for those who want pickles without bothering with the intricacies of water bath canning.
“When you quick pickle something, you’re basically just packing prepared vegetables into a prepared brine and refrigerating them,” said Kathy Savoie, educator at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “You can get quite creative with your mixture of vegetables you put in there. It’s just something that you keep in your refrigerator fresh versus if you were to use a boiling water bath to prepare a pickled vegetable, it becomes a shelf stable item.”
Without the long-term preservative benefits of fermentation, quick pickles won’t last as long as standard pickles — but they’re so delicious it probably won’t matter anyway.
Step 1: Make your brine
At the most fundamental level, a quick pickle brine is made of vinegar, water, salt and sugar.
You can use the same basic brine for anything you want to pickle. Savoie said that the University of Maine Cooperative Extension has recipes on its website for both a sweet and sour quick pickle brine.
“Once you’ve used it, you don’t want to keep repacking products in there,” Savoie said. “You have to make a fresh brine each time.”
Also, Savoie said to make sure that you are using vinegar with five percent acidity.
“It’s not as huge as a requirement in the quick pickling world because not something shelf stable but it’s still a good thing to do,” Savoie said. “The acidity level helps suppress any microbial growth. Check the label.”
With that basic brine, though, you can add any combination of spices that tickle your taste buds.
“Depending on the effect you’re going for, you can add a chopped hot chili or cloves of garlic,” said Malcolm Bedell, chef and owner of Ancho Honey in Tenants Harbor. “If you’re doing an Indian thing, add star anise or cardamom. You can basically flavor your brine any way you want depending on the effect you’re going for. Sometimes we’ll use apple cider vinegar instead of white vinegar if we want it to be less sharp. We kind of fly by the seat of our pants and throw whatever we want into the brine and trust that it will turn out ok, and it usually does.”
Savoie said that using fresh spices, when possible, will help improve the flavor of your quick pickle brine. Bedell also warned against going too overboard with the spices, though.
“If you add too many flavorings you kind of lose what’s cool about quick pickling things in general,” Bedell said. “We’ve done that with our pears where we’ve added brown sugar cinnamon, if you’re not careful you’ll be like, ‘Oh, what I’ve done here is make applesauce.’ I tend to let the vinegar and sugar do the work and let it speak for itself.”
Step 2: Pick your pickle
You can, of course, quick pickle cucumbers, but the process offers infinite possibilities for variation.
Bedell said that his go-to quick pickle — especially for sandwiches at Ancho Honey — is red onions.
“It can be great for any kind of slow-smoked meats,” Bedell said. “We use them any time we want to add sourness to a dish. Sour is an element that I think a lot of people miss and we try to include especially if something is really fatty or greasy.”
You can also quick pickle any variety of vegetables.
“All of your peppers can be pickled really well,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine. “There are people that basically make a pickled cabbage slaw kind of thing. They take red cabbage with sugar and vinegar and sometimes a little horseradish. Radishes are one of the best quick pickles especially if you want to take your taco plating game to a whole new level of sexiness. Quick pickles are a wonderful way to add a pop of acidity to a dish.”
When it comes to slicing vegetables like radishes and cabbage, Dumas recommended using a mandoline to keep the pieces even.
“A mandoline is an indispensable tool for getting nice even slices,” Dumas said. “That’s going to really help you with beautiful quick pickles.”
Savoie noted that some vegetables like beets, carrots and parsnips may need to be blanched before quick pickling.
Then, you can veer into the territory of the unexpected. Bedell recommended quick pickling mushrooms with “a tiny bit of soy sauce.”
“When you combine that with any kind of meat dish it’s an umami grenade,” Bedell said.
You can also quick pickle fruit.
Bedell said that at Ancho Honey, he makes quick pickled peaches and pears that he will use on fried chicken sandwiches for a “bright acidity that cuts through the fat.” Dumas said that he makes quick pickled apples for an apple and beet relish that he serves with goat cheese on crostinis. Meanwhile, Savoie said that quick pickled raisins are “absolutely delicious as an addition to a salad or a sandwich.” If you are feeling adventurous, she recommended trying balsamic quick pickled strawberries.
If you are a forager, fiddleheads can be quick pickled as well, but make sure you cook the fiddleheads first to eliminate the toxicity. To do this, steam the fiddleheads for 10 to 12 minutes or boil for 15.
“It’s wonderful as a side condiment,” Savoie said. “They do shrink a lot when they cook in the boiling water bath, so you do need to pack the jar quite tightly.”
Another fun, unexpected thing to quick pickle is fresh nasturtium seed pods.
“It forms after the flower gets pollinated,” Dumas said. “Some people ferment them in a salt brine and use it like a caper, put it in a relish or put it in a butter sauce.”
Savoie said she has even quick pickled shrimp, which she said she serves as an hors d’oeuvres with toothpicks.
“The thing about that is it has a very short shelf life,” Savoie said. “You start with a cooked shrimp product and you pack it in a brine, give it two days and then eat it the third day.”
Step 3: Pickle
Once you have your ingredients, simply heat the brine just long enough to melt the sugar, let it cool, pack the vegetables you are pickling into a jar and pour the brine over it. You can also heat the vegetables in the pot along with the brine, but Bedell said to be careful not to cook the materials too long.
“We find that the less we heat the brine, the fresher things stay,” Bedell said. “Our basic method is we throw whatever chopped thing we’re pickling into a pot, heat it just long enough to melt the sugar [and] throw it in the fridge.”
Savoie said that for most things that you quick pickle, you want to let the flavor develop for one to two days before serving them. She also said that quick pickles will last about two weeks in the refrigerator. Towards the end, Bedell said they may lose some flavor and color and look less appealing, but as long as you use them within those two weeks, those quick pickles are still edible.
If you are quick pickling this year, Savoie said to avoid using canning lids for your finished product — mostly because they are unnecessary, and there is a concern about a shortage of canning lids this upcoming season.
“Any food grade container is ok to pack your quick pickles in,” Savoie said. “You can even use a recycled washed glass container that had something else in it. Ball also carries those plastic reusable lids that fit on canning jars. Avoid wasting a precious canning lid for a refrigerated product.”
With safety and kindness for other canners in mind, though, feel free to experiment with quick pickling to your heart’s content.
“If it’s a food you enjoy, there’s no reason you can’t be quick pickling it and incorporating it into your cooking,” Bedell said.