Pickling spices are a blend of spices used to lend flavor to meat or vegetables during the pickling process. They are usually wrapped together in cheesecloth or a small sachet and cooked with the pickling mixture. Usually, the spices are removed after cooking rather than aged with the pickle.
The ingredients used to make a pickling spice mixture are widely variable, with many recipes claiming to be traditional or authentic. Most American and British varieties include coriander, mustard seed, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, bay leaves and black pepper. Indian pickling spices often also use turmeric, cardamom, and chili peppers.
To make a vegetable pickle using pickling spices, boil the vegetables until tender and then drain. Refill your cooking pot with vinegar, salt and sugar and your pickling spice mixture and boil the vegetables again for 10-20 minutes. When cool enough, pour into sterilized jars and seal. Be sure to remove the pickling spice mix before jarring the pickle.
Pickling spices can be used in many other ways, for any recipe requiring extra spicing. To make spiced vinegar or olive oil, add a sachet of your favorite mix to the bottle for two or three days and then discard. Allow the spices to simmer with soup or stew; they can add deep flavor to homemade soup, but can also kick the flavors of canned soup up. Use when making chutney, or add a sweet version containing cinnamon, cloves, allspice, ginger, cardamom, and nutmeg, when cooking down fruit for homemade spiced plum jelly or jam.
In most recipes, the infusion of the spices is long enough to add flavor and depth to the main components, but short enough to enhance, rather than overpower, the dish. Pickling spices can be used to bring out subtle flavors in meats such as rabbit and venison. It is wonderful for stews, as it gives the recipe enough flavor to match its heartiness.
You can purchase pre-packaged pickling spice mixes at most grocery stores, but it can also be fun to make your own. Because the mixture has so many uses, you may want to make a large jar to keep on hand at home. For home use, you can toss the spices in however you like, but you can also layer the spices carefully in a clear glass jar and add several pieces of cheesecloth to make pickling spices a beautiful and useful gift. Keep properly sealed so the spices will not lose their potency, and consider slightly crushing or toasting the portion you need for immediate use to release the flavors.
Experimenting with pickling spices is definitely encouraged. If you do not wish to make a large batch of the spice mix, you can easily customize small portions to the dish you are making. Research which flavors typically go together to get ideas for mixtures, or throw caution to the wind and try whatever sounds good together. Using pickling spices can be a great way to learn about flavor combinations, and can add whole new levels of flavor to everything from Grandma’s pickle recipe to your favorite soup.