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Backslide Pickles

by Ari LeVaux

Since reading Sandor Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, I’ve changed my orientation as a pickler. I used to be such a committed maker of vinegar pickles that I didn’t even realize it was possible to make them any other way. Now that I’m a fermentation pickler, I’m at the bottom of a new learning curve, but my black belt in vinegar pickling still hangs in the closet. And like the driving skills I learned as a teen-ager in Boston, my vinegar pickle skills remain programmed in my muscle memory, always at the ready. So when I happened upon three pints of red jalapeños – for a buck each! – at the farmer’s market recently, I couldn’t help but whip up a batch of old school vinegar-pickled jalapeños and carrots. I just couldn’t.

To be clear, this was backsliding, and not a permanent return to my old ways. I’m sold on exploring the huge world of fermentation, with its new flavors, health advantages and all-around fascinating concept. While vinegar preserves food by killing, fermentation preserves by promoting microbial life. Fermentation creates conditions that favor the growth of healthy germs like lactobacillus. They make the environment more acidic, which prevents the growth of dangerous microbes.

That same acidic environment is what pickles the food the microbes are growing on. In fact, vinegar is a fermentation product.
Back in the day, I’d make more jalapeño and carrots than any other pickle formulation, sometimes upwards of 50 quarts. So bringing home my three pints of peppers was a return to the familiar, like going back to Bean-town and still knowing my way around.

It was with pickled carrots and jalapeños, or simply “pickles,” as I called them, that I first learned the pleasures of munching pickles with many types of rich, fatty foods, from scrambled eggs to eggplant parmesan to steak with mayo.

Like an aboriginal hunter utilizing every bit of his kill, I wasted nothing from the pickle jar. Once emptied of its peppers and carrots, the vinegar was used in salad dressing or marinade. And the vinegar-soaked mustard seeds at the bottom of the jar were ground in a blender, with turmeric and paprika, into mustard.
Any pepper can be pickled, even thin-skinned varieties. But small, fleshy peppers are best, like Tabasco-style, or jalapeños, or sweet peppers. No bells. I follow one of a few themes, depending on what’s available. Hot and sweet peppers, or Hotties and Sweeties, are probably my second favorite after peppers and carrots. Peppers can also be pickled with cauliflower, or alone, or with garlic. Or all of the above. When pickled with carrots, many people add onions and oregano too, for Mexican-style zanahorias en escabeche.

Upon purchasing my red jalapeños, I already had everything else I needed on hand. The vinegar, sugar and salt were on the shelf, and the carrots were easily dug from the garden. Rings and lids were right where I’d left them, forgotten but not gone, as were bags of mustard seeds. The process was as familiar and easy as slipping into bed with an ex-lover.

Here are some tips from my process:
- I like a 50/50 blend of cider and white wine vinegar, which gives the ideal balance of clarity (from the white wine vinegar) and flavor (from the cider vinegar).
- With jalapeños and carrots, I chop everything into space-efficient rounds, about a half-inch thick, which pack together tightly. Rounds are also easier to scoop from the jar with a spoon. You can cut them into any other shape you want, or leave the peppers whole – just remember to slice off the stem end so the brine can enter.
- An added grape leaf keeps pickles crispy, thanks to the tannins (which is why other tannin-rich leaves, like cherry, will work as well).
- Other factors in crispy pickles are using fresh veggies and not overcooking them. Using unrefined sea salt is also said to help.
- Some people add garlic. I don’t think it makes the pickles any better. Others do.
- I use a mix of yellow and brown mustard seeds. The mix probably doesn’t affect the flavor, but looks pretty.
- I prefer wide-mouth jars because they’re easier to pack.
Note: the directions that follow employ canning terms and assume basic knowledge of the subject. If you’re unfamiliar with canning, or with any of this language, read the directions that come with the Mason jar lids or any canning book, or consult your local Extension Office.

General pickled pepper recipe
Sterilize jars. Cut vegetables.

Add a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon or two of mustard seeds to the bottom of each empty jar.

Pack peppers and veggies into jars as tightly as possible, leaving a 1-inch headspace. Add any extras like grape leaf, garlic, onions and oregano along with the veggies.

When the jars are packed, heat your brine. The more space-efficiently you’ve packed the jars the less brine you will need. I can eyeball a group of packed jars and heat up the right amount of brine, but it never hurts to err on the side of extra brine, which can be saved for later. Generally speaking, you need between a half and three-quarters of a jar of brine per packed jar of pickles.

The brine consists of equal parts vinegar and water. As it heats, add sugar to taste, a little at a time until it softens the edge of the vinegar but doesn’t make it taste sweet.

When the brine boils, turn off the heat and pour it into the jars, covering the veggies by half an inch, which should leave another half-inch of headspace. Wipe any stray mustard seeds from the rims. Process in a water bath for 5 to 10 minutes, or simply hot pack it.

My adventure with pickled carrots and jalapeños was the first time I had used my canning gear since I began exploring fermentation. And while I’m excited for the fermented road ahead, I won’t be ditching my kettle and tongs along the way. You never know when the vinegar urge might strike again.