When you crave the bright, crisp bite of a pickle, you could go the old-school route and dig out the big metal canner and box of mason jars from your basement.
With that method, you would spend hours in the kitchen, then wait weeks before you could twist off the lid and enjoy your crunchy creation.
But it you want homemade pickles lickety-split, quick pickling is the way to go. Although you can use this method year-round, it's well-suited for summer, when farmers markets and backyard gardens are bursting with fresh produce.
Quick pickles (also known as refrigerator pickles) are easy to make. You don't need special canning equipment, and you don't have to follow a time-consuming process.
The basic technique involves making a vinegar brine, which is poured over vegetables in a bowl, jar or other container along with spices and aromatics.
Some recipes call for refrigerating overnight or up to a few days to develop flavors, but other recipes give you veggies you can enjoy as soon as they cool.
Though pickling is commonly associated with cucumbers, all kinds of vegetables can be quick-pickled, and you can serve them in numerous ways.
Pickled green beans, cauliflower, rhubarb and asparagus make a tasty addition to an appetizer tray or served alongside grilled or roasted meats.
Thin-sliced pickled red onion lends a zesty note to burgers and tacos, and cool, crisp pickled beets and carrots add a crunchy element to salad greens.
Several local dining spots use them, too. Twisted Cork Bistro in west Omaha tops its burger with bright-pink pickled onions. At the Kitchen Table restaurant downtown, pickled seasonal produce accompanies various sandwiches.
Fans of quick-pickling say they prefer the method over traditional canning because it takes little effort, requires less time and yields delicious results.
Every summer, Chris Myers of Omaha turns cucumbers, carrots, radishes and other vegetables from his garden into refrigerator pickles.
He'll tuck long, thin slices of pickled cucumbers into sandwiches and also snacks on them straight out of the jar. With the brine, he makes vinaigrette for salads. And he eats whatever additional vegetables he uses to flavor the brine, like cherry peppers and onions.
Both canning and quick-pickling are good ways to use his garden haul, but Myers, who works as a chef, likes the latter method better because it produces a crunchier, fresher-tasting pickle.
He enjoys making pickles at home because he can customize them to be as sweet, sour, spicy or garlicky as he wants. And the do-it-yourself approach is simply more appealing to him.
“You're not just opening a jar from the store,” he said.
Some say canning produces a better product, though.
Making refrigerator pickles may be easier than canning, but the flavors aren't as complex and robust, and quick versions won't keep nearly as long, said Julie Albrecht, professor and extension food specialist in the Department of Nutrition and Health Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Unlike pickles processed in a boiling water-bath canner that are shelf-stable for many months, refrigerator pickles will usually last up to a week in the fridge, Albrecht said. For storage, she recommends using glass or stainless steel containers (with a lid) instead of plastic to prevent staining.
Whatever pickling method you choose, some of the steps are similar.
To prepare vegetables, slice them to allow the brine to penetrate more surface area, Albrecht said. You can leave certain slender vegetables whole — asparagus and green beans, for example. When cutting vegetables into pieces, make sure they're all relatively the same size to ensure a more consistent flavor.
Some recipes call for pouring a hot brine over vegetables, while others recommend letting it cool first. Culinary instructor Steve Bell said using a hot or cool brine depends on the vegetable.
When poured over vegetables, a boiling brine can cook them slightly, resulting in a less-crunchy pickle, said Bell, chef-instructor at Metropolitan Community College's Institute for the Culinary Arts.
For most vegetables, he prefers to cool the brine first. When pickling carrots or other sturdy, hearty vegetables, a hot brine is fine.
Heartier vegetables also require more time (at least overnight) in the brine to allow it to set in. But cooks who want pickles pronto can slice their vegetables thin, Bell said.
Thin-sliced red onions, for example, can be ready in about 45 minutes. Cucumbers cut into thin rounds, instead of in half, take just a few hours in the fridge for the brine to work its magic.
Making a brine is simple. Combine vinegar (straight or diluted with water, depending on the recipe), salt and sugar (amounts vary) in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt and sugar completely. Heating the brine helps draw out and distribute the flavor of whatever spices and aromatics you use.
You can choose a variety of spices: mustard seed, coriander, peppercorns, fennel and cumin seeds, juniper berries, garlic, fresh dill, sprigs of rosemary, tarragon or thyme. Bell suggests toasting the seeds first, and he encourages cooks to experiment and customize their own spice combo.
Any vegetable is fair game. One of his favorites is pickled corn, using sweet kernels cut fresh off the cob.
“I've pickled everything you can imagine,” he said.
You also can choose what kind of vinegar you'll use. Cider vinegar, rice wine vinegar, tarragon vinegar, champagne or white wine vinegar all work fine. Red wine vinegar works, too, but may stain lighter-colored veggies. Distilled white vinegar can be used, but Bell said he avoids it when pickling and working with food in general.
“The only purpose for white distilled vinegar is for cleaning,” he said.