making pickling spice with gayla trail

pickledradishpodI SOWED CUCUMBERS the other day, with the idea of late-season pickles, and just after that, talked to my friend Gayla Trail of You Grow Girl dot com. She’s the only person I know who has more boxes of canning jars than I do—so we got to talking pickles, and especially pickling spice.

“What do you use for pickling spice?” I asked–because I can see on my blog stats that my page with the headline, “What’s in pickling spice?” is getting lots of hits as it does each year at this time.

What’s in pickling spice? Well, it’s a less obvious answer than you might think. Gayla grows a lot of her own ingredients, and pickles things you might not have thought of, too—like radish seedpods (top photo), garlic scapes, purslane, cherry tomatoes and more. That’s what we talked about on the latest edition of my weekly radio show (listen in now).

gayla trailmy pickling q&a with gayla trail

Q. I had to laugh, Gayla, when the other day on out Skype call it turned out neither of us knew what “pickling spice” meant, really. Like “bouquet garni” or Old Bay Seasoning or even “curry powder,” pickling spice is actually a mix of herbs and spices, not a single ingredient.

A. I was thinking of herbes de Provence, too.

Q. So as an expert pickler, what do you think it means?

A. In theory I know what it’s supposed to be, but I’ve never actually purchased one of those mixes. And in fact when I make pickles, unless I’m writing a recipe so that other people can follow along, I don’t measure my spices out, but just go by what looks like the right amount—and I change it up every single time.

In theory I know there’s mustard seed, coriander seed, sometimes cloves or cinnamon (though I have never put cinnamon into my pickles—I only put it into jams). Maybe allspice berries, and dill seed.

Q. On the basic generic brands, when I looked at labels: bay leaves, chilies, cloves, cinnamon stick, ginger, allspice, mustard seed—are you exhausted yet?–coriander, black pepper, mace, and cardamom.

A. Wow.

Q. Some expert canners say you might be able to get by with those, but pick out the cinnamon stick, or heavy up on the red pepper to make it spicier, and so on to adulterate the generic thing. But you don’t use most of those things, do you? (And some of the commercial brands here don’t even include dill.)

A. I have used most of those things separately, but not that many together.

Q. The pared-down version that Food in Jars author Marisa McLellan recommends includes fewer ingredients: peppercorns, coriander seeds, dill seeds, mustard seeds, allspice berries, red pepper flakes and bay leaves.

A. That’s more what’s in line with what I would think.

Q. But you of course, being Gayla—and going your own way and being an experimenter horticulturally and in the kitchen—try things. So what else goes in your pickles?

A. It really depends on what I’m making, and also I go with what I have. I usually have a lot of fresh spices, and love going to spice stores. I also really at this time of year like to use things I can get out of my garden, because I have a wealth of fresh herbs. And also: Hearing that these mixes use hot chili flakes, I’d say I don’t use a lot of hot pepper, because I don’t like a lot of heat. I do hot peppers in some pickles for other people, but for myself—what I use that still gives it that pepper flavor is sweet or sweet-smoked paprika.

Q. That really surprised me, when you first told me but when I thought of it—the sweet-smoked paprika powder flavor….and by the way, we’re not talking supermarket paprika here, right, but good-quality paprika?

A. Exactly. I’ve become a little bit obsessed with it. The first time I did it was with green tomatoes—sweet pickled green tomatoes. I did add a little bit of sugar, and a bit of paprika, and it is very good sweetened. I’ve also done the paprika with other things.

Q. It’s become your go-to—but it’s not on any of the “pickling spice” ingredient lists I see out there.

I read an old “New York Times” piece about pickling spice, and it had many of the same ingredients we’re talking about, but they toasted the ingredients in a small, dry skillet first, just till they’re fragrant. Have you done that?

A. No, but that’s really pretty genius. I’ve done that for other meals—but not pickles. One extra step, but sounds like it’s worth taking.

Q. Like bringing out the flavor of your spices when making a curry.

A. Yes. Here in Toronto I’m kind of spoiled by the number of spice places where you can get not just one paprika, but Hungarian paprika, Spanish paprika, and paprika in all kinds of interesting tins.

Q. We have one famous mail-order place, Kalustyans, located in New York City, that mail-orders an amazing list of every spices and other ingredients, so you could go on a binge even if you live somewhere that doesn’t have spice shops. And we can as you say, also bring things in from the garden.

A. I mentioned paprika—and this year I am even growing my own paprika.

Q. Is it a pimiento type of pepper?

radish_podsA. Yes (though there are other special paprika varieties, too), and I’m also letting my mustard greens go to seed, to try in my pickles.

When you say “pickling spice,” my immediate thought is “flavoring,” so for instance this week I made pickled radish seedpods—when you let the radish grow into this crazy beast of a plant [photo above, or in this article], so the root isn’t edible any longer. I let it go to seed, and then once the seedpods develop but they’re immature, I eat those. They’re nice and crunchy, and they have a radish flavor, but not quite the same as the root.

One plant will make loads of those, so you let it go, and then you pull the pods off. I experimented this week pickling them with two flavors: one of course with my go-to paprika, and garlic, black peppercorns, yellow mustard seed, brown mustard seed, and apple-cider vinegar.

Then I did another batch of pods, with lemon verbena, because I have a lot of it right now in the garden. Not what you’d think of for pickling, but I like that lemony flavor in pickles sometimes. I did lemon verbena with a bit of lemon zest, and black peppercorns, and a tiny bit of sugar to take off the edge.

[Get the Pickled Radish Pods recipe from You Grow Girl.]

Q. So a citrusy note.

A. In the citrusy area, I’ve done lemon peel with tarragon, which is really good. I did that one time with little yellow, ripe cherry tomatoes. Somehow with the yellow tomatoes I thought, “lemon,” and that ended up being a really good flavor mix.

garlicscape_pickleQ. You did some garlic-scapes pickles, didn’t you—using the “bonus crop” of hardneck garlic, the flower stalk, about a month before garlic harvest?

A. I had a ton of them, and one can only make so much pesto—plus my freezer’s full. They’re these weird alien things that kind of grow in a twist, and you can just twist them into the jar, and it looks really pretty, all stacked up inside your pint-sized jar.

For the pickling mix I did apple-cider vinegar—that’s my go-to vinegar, and I use it more than white vinegar, unless I want the cleaner flavor of white vinegar—and I did that with (guess what?) smoked paprika and yellow mustard seeds, brown mustard seed, peppercorns and coriander seed from the garden, and juniper berries. [Get the Pickled Garlic Scapes recipe on You Grow Girl dot com.]

Q. Are you processing these in boiling water, or making refrigerator pickles?

A. I have no fridge space right now because I have such an abundance of produce right now, so I’ve been doing a hot water bath.

Q. One of the other pickling ingredients in making the brine is salt—and I didn’t know until recently that all salts are not created equal. Some brands are heavier and saltier than others—especially with our Kosher salt here in the U.S. (Morton’s is saltier than Diamond, because it’s heavier.) What salt do you use?

A. I’d never heard of that. I just use pickling salt, and there is usually only one brand here.

Q. What else are you going to be making?

A. I am going to be doing purslane pickles. I have a lot of it this year—it’s an edible weed, but I always leave a patch or two to make salads, and this year I am making pickles from some. And also I’m doing cherries–pickled cherries.

more on pickling

enter to win ball heritage canning jars

ball heritage jarsWIN A SET OF 6 PINT JARS from Ball’s Heritage series (your choice of blue or green)–Gayla and I each purchased a set to give away. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the bottom of the page, after the last comment:

What’s in your version of “pickling spice”? Packaged, adulterated, or homegrown secret ingredients? Do tell.

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say “count me in” or something, and we will. Remember: Double your chances to win by commenting on both our websites. Here’s where Gayla’s story is.

We’ll draw two random winners after entries close at midnight Monday, July 21. U.S. and Canada only. Good luck to all!

prefer the podcast?

GAYLA TRAIL was my guest on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Get it free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The July 14, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marked the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

  1. Julie Cathcart says:


    The green canning jars are beautiful! And do you know that Amazon gave me “same day delivery”—-the jars were delivered the same day that you notified me that I was a winner. That’s amazing.

    Many thanks again for the jars. I will always remember you and your blog when I use them.


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