In an age when fresh produce is available year-round and can be mechanically carted around the world in a few hours, worrying about vegetable preservation could seem like a dated notion. "Preservation" for most Boiseans is that guy at Winco who picks out the rotten avocados so that they only have to look at (and jam a dirty thumb into) the pretty ones. But pickling vegetables, either through vinegars or saltwater brine fermentation, is still a daily domestic art for much of the world—and one whose basic principles have changed very little in the last 3,000 years. Learning to incorporate these practices into one's kitchen repertoire is more than just a nice way to update a snack list; it is perhaps the best way to save one's proud garden bounty (or the bounty that one purchases from a farmer's market) from becoming wilted, flaccid corpses in a vegetable-crisper crypt.
Learning to pickle anything from cucumbers to garlic to pig's feet is about harnessing the decomposition process of foods, encouraging some bacterial growth while discouraging others (namely Clostridium botulinum). In other words, even if your grandmother didn't look scientific in her preparation of pickles, it was and is a quite delicate process, so be wary. The boom that occurred in home preservation during World War II when, according to The Joy of Pickling author Linda Ziedrich, the U.S. government commandeered upwards of 40 percent of commercial pickles for soldiers, led to countless family recipes which are easy to find in cookbooks and on Web sites. However, the boom also led to a record number of household disasters and cases of food poisoning, which has led the U.S. Department of Agriculture Extension Office to form and update a definitive "Complete Guide to Home Canning," including a section on home pasteurization and safe fermentation.
This is the guide that local gherkin guru Terry Stranahan swears by. As a former Forest Service fire management officer, Stranahan learned the value of portable, durable pickles both as a treat and as impromptu rangeland currency. Today, the officially "retired" Kuna resident is a full-fledged pickle baron, with several dozen Mason-jarred products lining shelves in the Boise Co-op, Smoky Davis and Eagle City Market (as well as stores in seven other states), and he has tips galore for aspiring fermenters. First and foremost: think outside the cuke. "In places like Oregon, California and Washington, the lack of temperature change makes it ideal for growing and pickling cucumbers," Stranahan explains, "but instead I got into pickled garlic, which can be had readily year round." Spicy pickled garlic has been a standby dish in Korea for centuries, but is also ideal for Americans looking to access the incredible health benefits of garlic while minimizing the halitosis-factor. Three or four inexpensive bulbs, peeled and stored in mere tablespoons of brown rice vinegar, brown sugar and soy sauce will last in fridges or bomb shelters upwards of a year can be all but finished in a single television commercial break.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, Stranahan, who hand picks, peels and jars his products, advises an uncompromising standard of freshness: fresh vinegar (and only those with an acidity level of five percent), fresh unchlorinated water, fresh vegetables and especially a fresh recipe. "No matter how many times Aunt Josie or whoever passed her private recipe down, you should still update it to USDA standards of canning," he explains, "because even if nobody ever got sick from it in the 1950s and 60s, you only have to slip up and get some botulinum in there once." Almost all cases of food-bourne botulism in the United States (as opposed to cosmetic syringe-injected botulism) result from shoddily prepared canned goods, but the basic safety techniques are simpler than making a peanut butter and pickle sandwich (which is also highly recommended).
First, remember that botulism bacteria cannot live in an acidic environment, so any non-brine pickling recipe that calls for vinegar "to taste" or only in small doses is immediately suspect. Second, use sea salt instead of milled salt and whole spices instead of ground ones, both to ease the pickling process and to keep one's pickles from becoming discolored or soggy. And finally, because fermentation hinges on bacterial growth, don't take chances. Immediately toss any moldy, slimy, wretched-smelling or otherwise questionable goods, and learn the USDA's basic pasteurization techniques, easily encapsulated either in The Joy of Pickling or through Oregon State University's online "Pickling Vegetables" publication. Those basic standards aside, the appeal of pickling is its adaptability. Almost any spice, any vinegar and any meat or veggie can be used in pickling and enjoyed for months—and they can help you show those grannies at the county fair who's boss, too!