Foods have been pickled for years, and it’s rumoured Cleopatra claimed pickles aided her beauty, and that Caesar gave pickles to his troops for strength. Neither rumour can be proven, but what is proven is that pickling is a way to preserve food, or even give food a different flavour, and it is easy to do.

Basics of Pickling

Pickling won’t keep produce indefinitely: maybe three or four weeks in the fridge, more if unopened, but it depends on the method used and usually involves immersing food in a solution of vinegar and water so bacteria can’t survive. The final flavour will vary depending on your choice of vegetable or fruit, the ratio of water to vinegar, the type of vinegar, and any optional ingredients or seasonings you add.

Methods of Pickling

There are two pickling methods — quick pickling and canning. While they’re based on the same concept of preserving food to eat later, they are very different.

Quick pickling means that your produce undergoes a fast and simple process of pickling in a brine. Once preserved, they can be stored in your fridge for a few weeks or more, and in a relatively short time are ready to eat, but will become soggy the longer they remain in the brine. It is recommended to use young fresh veggies or fruits of a similar size.

The only vegetables I could think of for pickling were pickling onions, beetroot and red cabbage, but there is a whole list of vegetables suitable for pickling - asparagus, beets, bell peppers, cauliflower, carrots, green beans, parsnips, squash, tomatoes, turnips - even mushrooms, and probably even more. Fruits were something I wouldn’t even have considered for pickling, but many types of fruit can be pickled – including peaches, apples, crab apples, pears, plums, grapes, currants, mangoes, tomatoes - and even our famous Portuguese olives.

Preparation - Clean fruit and veg without blemishes are a must. You’ll also need clean glass jars and lids, water (ideally purified), vinegar, pure sea salt, and sometimes sugar. You can try different kinds of vinegar, like apple cider or rice wine vinegar, but avoid aged or concentrated vinegar like balsamic or malt varieties – but if it's British-style pickled onions you're after, malt vinegar is an absolute, non-negotiable must! You can also add fresh or dry flavourings such as bay leaves, mustard seeds, etc as required. Just pack your selection - whole, sliced or diced - tightly into the jars without smashing them.

The classic ratio for a basic pickling brine is easy to remember. This is a basic 3-2-1 pickle recipe - three parts vinegar, two parts water, and one part sugar. Salt and spices are totally up to you and/or your recipe. Bring everything to a boil, stir, then cover your produce with the brine. Nothing should be above the brine, just allow a gap of 1-1.5cm of airspace below the lid.

Credits: Unsplash; Author: ray-shrewsberry;

Jars must be clean and lids should be airtight - sterilised them first to remove any bacteria, and if you have one, run them through the hottest cycle in your dishwasher, or use the old-fashioned method – in the oven. After washing and rinsing first, place jars in the oven for around 10-15 minutes at 140C-160C.

The canning method

This method allows for long-term storage and involves the sterilisation of any bacteria, including the jar, and the product that goes in it, effectively cooking it. Canning does not necessarily use a ‘brine’ to preserve food but uses heat, or both heat and pressure. It is important to understand what takes place in the canning process because unless you understand this, you won’t appreciate why you must use special equipment.

Foods spoil because they are constantly under attack by bacteria, yeast, mould, etc. Fruit and veg also contain enzymes for normal ripening and maturing, and unless halted, can cause over-ripening, changes in flavour, colour and texture. Canning heats at a high temperature and for long enough to destroy microorganisms and stops the enzyme action, so you need a proper pressure canner – not your ordinary pressure cooker, but a heavy-duty piece of equipment with a vent, a pressure gauge and screw clamps, which heats foods beyond the point of boiling water.


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan