In a Pickle

Preserving food doesn’t have to leave you in a pickle!

Pickling is a millennia-old tradition that you can thank for your favorite burger topping or afternoon snack. Once vital for preserving foods, we now enjoy pickling as a worth-the-wait method of creating mouthwatering flavors. Read on to discover more about this unique way to extend the shelf life of foods and learn useful tips and tricks from local pickling pros.

By Rachel Coats

How it Works

Pickling is a preservation method that involves sealing and marinating food in a brine. It’s a great way to make use of extra veggies or get creative with everyday ingredients. While the word pickling likely brings pickles to mind – and rightfully so, given their name – there are dozens of other foods that can be preserved using this method. Summer veggies, such as cucumbers, peppers, okra, and carrots, are a popular option, but you can pickle nearly every fresh vegetable. Even fruit and eggs can benefit from time spent marinating in a jar.
None of it would be possible without brine, a solution that gives pickled foods the signature salty and tangy taste that many people love. All you need to make a brine is vinegar, salt, and water. Some people also add sugar to this mix. You can use either apple cider vinegar or white distilled vinegar – just make sure it has an acidity of five percent. Granulated salt or rock salt with no iodine added is recommended, as iodine can darken the color of the food and table salt can create a cloudy brine. Avoid using metal utensils, which can react with the brine’s acidity and alter the food’s taste.

While you can’t go wrong with a simple brine solution, playing around with spice blends can introduce delicious flavors that complement your pickled food. Try adding chili flakes to turn up the heat or garlic cloves to create a savory serving.
Dan Shanahan, who enjoys pickling with a local group of friends, partners cucumbers and peppers to create flavorful and spicy pickles. “We add a little bit of heat with various types of peppers: ghost peppers, jalapeño, habanero, serrano. They’re not over-the-top hot; they just give you a little kick. We call them ‘heat-packing pickles.’”
Make sure to use whole spices and herbs to best infuse food with your flavors of choice. There are countless combinations to explore!

Good For Your Gut

Pickled food isn’t just tasty – it’s healthy, too. The acidity of the brine promotes the creation of gut-friendly bacteria that can aid digestive health. They’re also a low-calorie snack. While it’s easy to keep reaching for the next bite, make sure to enjoy in moderation, as pickled foods have a high sodium content.

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Vanessa McNeil Trent’s
Pickling Tips

  • Shop local veggies
  • Use a sharp knife to prep produce
  • Buy vinegar by the gallon
  • Boil brine in a thick-bottomed pot

“Pickling takes time, patience, and a lot of vinegar.”

-Vanessa McNeil Trent

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Quick Pickling vs. Water-bath Canning

There are two methods to pickle foods: quick pickling and water-bath canning.
Quick pickling has become a popular shortcut to achieving tangy flavors. Produce is sealed in a boiling solution and then refrigerated for several hours before enjoying. Foods made through quick pickling can last for several weeks to several months in the refrigerator. This method is best for foods that you plan to enjoy within a short period of time after making.
The traditional water-bath canning method involves heating jars of food in boiling water. When processed and stored properly at room temperature, the canned food can be safe to eat for up to a year – which means you can always have a pickled food in store for a rainy day. Because the food marinates longer, it yields stronger flavors than the quick pickling method.
Vanessa McNeil Trent, who has been pickling since childhood and now instructs others on canning processes, believes water-bath canning is worth the wait. She explains, “Refrigerator pickles have a weaker brine, the pickles aren’t as crisp, and they don’t keep nearly as long as canned pickles. While those are great in a time crunch, canned pickles are worth the time and effort – the taste and crispness are unmatched.”
“There is no one way to pickle. Everyone has their own unique touch,” adds Sandy Hood, a pickling pro with over 60 years of experience. “The end result is great-tasting food, and pickled food is good for you!”

The Pros of Pickling

Pickling can come in handy for reasons beyond achieving tasty flavors. For Morgan Howard, pickling is a useful solution to avoid wasting the excess vegetables she harvests from her home garden. “You get to eat your garden harvest all year long! And they make a great gift for friends and family.”

Shanahan similarly finds joy in sharing homemade pickled foods with those around him on a large scale. Pickling is an annual tradition for Shanahan and a group of men on Lookout Mountain, who learned the ins and outs of pickling from their friend, Mike Loy. After Loy passed away in 2021, the group continued to gather each year to pickle hundreds of jars-worth during what they now call the “Mike Loy Pickle Fest,” in remembrance of their dear friend and his extensive knowledge of the preservation process. “It’s all about the fellowship – a yearly open house with a purpose. It’s a lot of work, but much more fun,” shares Shanahan.

To those interested in learning how to pickle, Shanahan advises, “Do your homework. Research through whatever method you want – you can buy books, you can get online, you can go on YouTube. Start small and then go from there.”

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How I Learned to Pickle

“Mike Loy taught us. He grew up in a rural area and was taught pickling by his mother and her family. We started pickling on Lookout Mountain back in the late ‘90s, which morphed into a group of about five of us. Mike knew the dos and don’ts and technique, which we all then learned.”
Dan Shanahan

“I learned all about canning from a family friend who helps with our children. She taught me to can tomatoes, and from there we just started exploring what we could do with all the veggies we get out of our garden every summer.”
Morgan Howard

“My grandmother taught me to pressure can when I was about 7 years old. As an adult, I ventured into pickling on my own and taught myself using recipes from old cookbooks.”
Vanessa McNeil Trent

“My mother and grandmother taught me how to pickle. I learned as a young girl and have loved every minute of it. It led me to start canning my family’s recipes and turn my passion for canning and pickling into a family business, which my daughter Leah and her husband Scott have now joined.”
Sandy Hood

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Using the water-bath canning method

  1. Prep vegetables of choice (slice or chop)
  2. Set aside spices
  3. Start a boiling water bath on the stove
  4. Sterilize jars and rims in dishwasher and lids in pot of simmering water
  5. Mix brine and spices and bring to a boil
  6. Pour yourself a glass of wine (optional) and begin filling jars with brine mixture and veggies
  7. Add lids and rims to jars and process in water bath
  8. Shelve until it’s time to enjoy!

“Make sure you get all the air bubbles out before you put jars in the water bath, or they could bust when you put them in – I have learned this the hard way several times, and it is a big mess!”

-Morgan Howard

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With an easy-to-learn process and ingredients found in most kitchens, pickling is an accessible process that’s well worth a try. Whether you’re craving a salty snack and want to give quick pickling a go or investing in a canning hobby sounds like an intriguing venture, you can join a legacy of preservation enthusiasts. As Trent describes, “Pickling takes time, but like most things, it’s worth the wait when you pop off the lid.”

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My Favorite Food to Pickle

“When I pickle cucumbers, my favorite recipe is a make-you-sweat spicy garlic pickle. It took me months to achieve the desired level of heat. I also love to pickle green beans because it reminds me of pressure canning green beans as a kid with my grandmother, and they have a dill kick to them. ‘Dilly beans’ have a crisp crunch and make a great snack.”
Vanessa McNeil Trent

“I like doing okra, jalapeños, cucumbers – whatever we have an abundance of in our garden at the time.”
Morgan Howard

“Okra – we have a great recipe, and they go well with Bloody Marys. Cucumbers – we add heat; they are a crowd-pleaser. Jalapeños – these are a new favorite that everyone uses. They are great deep fried.”
Dan Shanahan

“Everything! Okra, beets, squash – these are my family recipes that I grew up pickling and what we always had in the garden.”
Sandy Hood

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