by Kate Payne • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo
The world of fruit pickles opened up before me during a particularly lush summer of peaches while I was living in New York. I rolled home from the farmers market, with 14 pounds of peaches, to my basement apartment in Brooklyn—my getaway vehicle being a bike with a storage rack, a tangle of assorted bungees and a 10-pound Chihuahua-Jack Russell mix accomplice perched like a cherry on top of the mess. (We literally rolled without a car in those days.)
After the spectacle of getting my weekend peach extravaganza home, there was only so much jam and sauce I could stand to make in my hot little kitchen. I always joke that it’s a wonder I ever canned again after that first foray into sealing jars via water-bath canning. It turns out that I prefer to be a small-batch canner, not a put-up-the-entire-harvest kind of canner. One of the projects that my ripe-and-ready peaches endured and excelled at was a single jar of refrigerator pickles. In subsequent years, with way fewer peaches, I’ve reserved more for this particular delicacy, canned them, conservatively gifted them and proceeded to hoard the remainder.
Pickling is the process of either pouring an acidic solution over fruits and vegetables or using salt or a saltwater brine to encourage the growth of lactic acid-producing bacteria; both methods promote an environment too acidic for spoiler bacteria and microorganisms to thrive. Spices and aromatics are infused into the pickled matter by osmosis, which can be sped up with heat. Fruit is perhaps not commonly thought of as solid pickle material, but tracing back through southern favorites we find watermelon rind pickles (made from the scraps of a melon) and gingery, spiced pickled peaches, or hopping the ocean, we find chutneys and tangy fruit spreads spanning many ethnic traditions.
Pickling fruit is an excellent alternative to turning it into jam for those who are not big fans of sweet preserves. Fruit pickles are more complex, a more grown-up incarnation. My all-time favorite use for pickled fruit is using the brine for shrub cocktails and dropping in the pickled fruit as a garnish.
These canning recipes work well using a water-bath for longer-term storage, but I prefer to just pickle small batches and store them in the refrigerator, where they stay firmer. I encourage lots of experimentation, as fruit will evolve throughout the course of the season. Early-season fruits tend to be a bit more tart, but the later they hang on, the sweeter they become. Experimenting with non-sugar sweeteners is also welcome, although they can produce darker brines and generally deeper, more molasses-like flavors. When using a sugar-alternative, I will sometimes add a bit of organic citrus zest to brighten things up.