Perpetual Pickles

August 15, 2012

Credit: Margaret Boyles
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A few years back, I answered the phone one day to hear a woman ask if I were the same person who’d written “all those gardening columns for the New Hampshire Times.”

Though the Times was long defunct, I laughed and told the caller she had the right person.

“Oh, thank goodness!” she exclaimed. “I really need your help.”

It turned out the woman’s only child, a son, was heading off to college in a few weeks, and he’d asked his mother to send him off with “the recipe for those pickles you kept on the kitchen counter all summer when I was a kid.”

“That was your recipe, from the Times,” the woman said. “I remember the title of your column that week: Perpetual Pickles. It made so much sense I started making them every summer for my son and his friends—the same way you said you did to encourage your daughter and her friends to eat more vegetables. I had no idea how much he’d liked them!”

The caller struggled with tears, and she and I ended up having a long chat. As the mom of an only child myself, I knew the joy and anguish of sending that one child off into the world as a freshly fledged adult. I told her it had felt like having an organ removed, and reminisced about how I’d spent months writing a poem for my daughter Molly. I titled it Rock, and used every metaphor I could unearth to remind her to stay rooted to the bedrock values of the family and community that had nurtured her.

By the time I’d finished my story, we two strangers had bonded over a common human experience and were both shedding tears.

But back to the pickles.

Perpetual Pickles Crock

During the harried weeks of midsummer into early fall, the garden crops come fast and furiously. When Molly was old enough to have friends over to play for the day, I came up with the idea of filling an old-fashioned two-gallon crock with a vinegar-and-dill brine, then tossing small cucumbers, green beans, fingerling carrots, and tiny zucchinis into it every day. I invited the children to snack from the pickle crock whenever they felt hungry.

I told the caller I didn’t have a real recipe. Every couple of weeks, I made a fresh brine—half cider vinegar, half tap water—filling the crock two-thirds full. I’d add three or four dill heads, a few peeled garlic cloves, and a little pickling salt. Then I’d start adding vegetables, usually weighing them down into the brine with a small plate.

The pickles always disappeared rapidly, sometimes even before they’d “pickled.”

Other readers told me they picked up on the idea and started a perpetual pickle crock at their home, even though they didn’t have a vegetable garden, using vegetables from a local farm stand, a neighbor’s garden or the supermarket (we didn’t have farmers’ markets back then).

I hope my caller’s son is still making pickles. I still am. I made my first batch a week or so ago, when the cucumbers began to bear, and the extra beans, baby summer squash, and carrot thinnings had to have somewhere to go.

We have no hungry children snatching vegetables from the crock, but the two of us seem to keep up with the pickled bounty. I even stole a fat cucumber and a few “dilly beans” before breakfast this morning. Mmm!

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

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I just bought a book by

By margaret l. dubois

I just bought a book by Sandor Katz called WILD FERMENTATION that explains with salt only, not vinegar, for lots of veggies.

I am wondering if one could

By Theme in New Mexico

I am wondering if one could keep a pickle crock going on the countertop using the natural fermentation method (no vinegar). In other words, is it safe to keep the naturally fermenting crock unrefrigerated and just keep adding veggies? If so, would one change the brine every few weeks or keep the brine with its live cultures going?

I'm a rank beginner at

By Margaret Boyles

I'm a rank beginner at natural fermentation. But if it were me, Theme, I'd make naturally fermented pickles in small batches, using a recipe like this, not adding new cukes (or other vegetables) to the fermenting jar, but making new jars of pickles as the veggies accumulate.

Of course, you can begin eating the salt-brined pickles as soon as you like.

The story is wonderful,


The story is wonderful, however, the recipe is not showing????

Every couple of weeks, I made

By Almanac Staff

Every couple of weeks, I made a fresh brine--half cider vinegar, half tap water—filling the crock two-thirds full. I’d add three or four dill heads, a few peeled garlic cloves, and a little pickling salt. Then I’d start adding vegetables, usually weighing them down into the brine with a small plate.

Thank you for your response

By Theme in New Mexico

Thank you for your response below. However, my question is whether one could do this on the countertop without the vinegar. I think the answer is that, if one is naturally fermenting in a saltwater brine, one has to refrigerate after a few weeks as the cultures will keep working on the pickles to the point of over fermenting (rotting). However, I may be wrong about this. Perhaps one can naturally ferment perpetual pickles as long as they are in a cool dark place? Thanks for your guidance.

After three or four weeks (if

By Margaret Boyles

After three or four weeks (if you haven't eaten them all), I'd store your salt-brined pickles in a cool, dark place. But I don't think you'd have to.

Here's a good monograph with more information. 

So I just started my crock

By joyce avans

So I just started my crock with sweet cherry peppers, cucumbers, okra, and some pear tomatoes. It's such a colorful addition to my kitchen counter. I can't wait to try these in a few days.

In South Korea, we preserve

By Sil in Corea

In South Korea, we preserve all of the cabbage relatives and different kinds of mild radishs (leaves and roots), plus many other veggies with a salt, garlic and red pepper flakes mixture. This is the famous "Kim Chi." Before red pepper came, I have been told that kim chi was mild and sometimes had "fish" added. I'm not sure if this was dried fish, like our salt cod, but I suspect so. (Koreans dry fish on the clothesline, like they do in coastal Maine villages.)

I am in the middle of making

By Dan Ripley

I am in the middle of making naturally fermented pickles with pickling salt,garlic and dill (no vinegar). Can the same thing be done with other veggies?Peppers,broccoli,cauliflower and carrots? After skimming the current batch for the last 2 weeks. I feel as if these are going to be great. Yum.

Good for you! Natural

By Margaret Boyles

Good for you!

Natural fermentation using a salt brine (also called lacto-fermentation) is one of the oldest methods of food preservation.

Kimchi (see Sil in Corea's post below) and sauerkraut are two ancient forms of lacto-fermentation still wildly popular today.

Fermented vegetables (and fruits) offer many health benefits. You can find recipes online for fermenting just about any vegetable or fruit. After fermentation and kept under refrigeration, these tangy pickles will keep a long time without cooking.

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