Tips and Tricks for Pickling at Home

Clever Cookstr chats with Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, the team behind Gefilteria, to get their expert tips and tricks for making pickles and sauerkraut at home.

Kara Rota
6-minute read
Episode #9

Welcome to the Clever Cookstr, your ultimate window into the kitchens of the world's best cooks.

Our guests today are Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, the team behind Gefilteria, a boutique purveyor of Old World Jewish foods. They're here today to share some tips and tricks for making pickles and sauerkraut at home.

CC: Pickles are a great way to use the bounty of summer produce and preserve what you might not get through during the season. What are some of your favorite things to pickle?

JY: I don't even know where to begin! I love cucumbers and dill, and love harvesting cucumbers when I have access to a garden. There's something so summery and crisp about a sour garlic pickle.

LA: My favorite thing to pickle is cabbage. I basically eat sauerkraut with every meal, once I've got jars of it on hand. It goes with everything, and I serve it all the time.

JY: One of my favorite things about summer is that it's a time to experiment and explore. So while I typically like to pickle vegetables and do a naturally fermented pickle, I also like to try other things. Right now I'm pickling grapes. I found a recipe that someone tried out, and it has mustard seeds, cinnamon, peppercorns, and black grapes, in white wine vinegar. It's really refreshing and so summery. Every summer, I like to try something new.

CC: I think that texture is one of the most important things when you're pickling almost any vegetable. There's something really awful about a mushy pickle. So how do you get that really crisp and crunchy texture that makes that noise when you bite into it?

LA/JY: There are two pickle worlds: the world of vinegar pickles and the world of salt water pickles. There are a few tricks to get a crunchy pickle:

  • Put your cucumbers in an ice water bath for 45 minutes-to-an hour before you start the pickling process.
  • For classic sour pickles, do a salt water pickle. Use a tannin-rich leaf, such as a bay leaf, oak leaf, or currant leaf. The tannins will help keep your vegetables crunchier.
  • Horseradish also works to keep pickles crunchy.
  • Most importantly: use fresh produce! Good quality produce makes a good, crunchy pickle.

CC: What are some tips for making great sauerkraut?

LA: I love sauerkraut. Naturally fermented, probiotic, living sauerkraut is one of my favorite things. It's important to be gentle with the cabbage. No smashing! You actually want to massage the salt into the sauerkraut; you don't want to smush it. All the water will draw out as you just patiently massage it.

JY: The beautiful thing about cabbage is if you just salt and massage it, enough liquid will be extracted to then create the brine that the cabbage will ferment in. There's no need to add water or anything else. All you need is salt and you can make an incredibly delicious, fresh-tasting sauerkraut. It does take time--you have to wait for the juices to extract--and it does take patience.

CC: I think one of the things people get nervous about when they're making pickles at home is food safety. When you have something that's fermenting. and that takes a long time to be ready, how do you know that you're storing it correctly?

LA: So, if we're talking about the world of fermentation, that's not the same as canning. We don't have to worry about botulism. We're just talking about general food safety. So as in any type of food prep, you want to make sure your surfaces are clean, your hands are clean, and whatever vessel you're putting things in is clean. I'm lucky enough to have a dishwasher; that's a great way to get things very clean and very hygenic. Keeping your hands clean is critical in all things, but particularly when you're fermenting.

JY: If you're fermenting sauerkraut in a very hot kitchen, it can affect the fermentation process. It can affect what kind of bacteria can thrive. That also might change the taste. Typically, I don't like to leave things fermenting in a hot kitchen for too long, so if you're doing a three- or four-day pickle (which would be a good half- to three-quarters sour pickle), that works--but a month-long sauerkraut wouldn't be good in those conditions. If you can get a steady room temperature, that's a good way to be safe.

We're of the school of "wild fermentation"--meaning, don't stress! If something tastes funky, just get rid of it. Compost it. It's not the end of the world--just try it again. That's the beautiful part of it. What I like to talk about is experimentation. Every time you work with natural bacteria, the product will be different. That really means it's a time to experiement, to play. Trust your instincts. If it tastes weird, then throw it out! You won't get sick from having something taste funky, it might just not be good. The risk is more in the flavor.


About the Author

Kara Rota

Kara Rota headed children’s programming at Chicago’s Green City Market and studied food politics at Sarah Lawrence College. Kara has been a featured speaker at numerous venues including Food Book Fair, the Roger Smith Food Conference, and the Brooklyn Food Conference. She has written about food for Irish America Magazine, West Side Rag, Recipe Relay, and Food + Tech Connect, and is the former Director of Editorial & Partnerships at Cookstr.com.