Pickled Watermelon, A Russian Delight


Russian pickled watermelon wedges on a plate

I have something different for you. Pickled watermelon. And no, I’m not just talking watermelon rinds, this is the whole red to white deal. I discovered pickled watermelon in the deli case of a Russian market in Atlanta. I was captivated by the display of red triangles and celery stalks floating amidst lacy dill and dots of allspice. What is this beautiful pickled food? How has it escaped me? Totally intrigued, I started researching and was surprised by how few (non-Russian) pickled watermelon (not rind) references and recipes there are.

russian pickled watermelon floating in brine and spices, watermelon pickles

As for Russian references, they are plentiful. Russians are notorious pickle enthusiasts and watermelon appears to be a favored ingredient. Maybe it’s because they’re red? To get the whole story I needed to get closer to the source. Using the Russian + Cyrillic translation of Pickled Watermelon (марино́ванный арбу́з) I was able to bring up scads of links… ahem…also in Cyrillic. Fortunately Google kind of translates them. The YouTube links were the best! I love watching Russians making watermelon pickles. Clearly it’s a joyful summertime pursuit there, and I think it’s time to spread some of that joy around here, where watermelons are such a huge part of summer.

A Tale of Two Pickles

According to a lot of babushkas making YouTubes, the number one watermelon pickling method is to pack pieces in jars or crocks and fill them with a boiling vinegar solution. From there the victims…err…pickles either go directly into the refrigerator or get sealed in jars and processed in a hot water bath. I’m not convinced. I feel a micro-gag thinking about boiling watermelon.

No-cook methods are the way to go and brining is my preference. But if fermentation is not your thing, Saveur magazine featured a no-cook, no-ferment version of Russian Pickled Watermelon a couple of years ago. Except for containing sugar, their recipe is essentially the formula I use for fermented watermelon pickles. And likely it’s how that Russian deli made those ones I discovered in Atlanta.

I decided to take the fermentation trail because it’s a reliable path to the perkiest cucumber pickles. My hunch was that watermelon’s flavor, with its cucumber-like aromatic quality, would be squashed by strong vinegar and outright killed with heat. I went in the right direction. A day or two in salt water then the magic of fermentation brings on tangy lactic acid—vinegar’s mellow sister—and the zesty brine that results totally amplifies watermelon’s sweet and fresh flavor.


wedges of russian watermelon pickles in a jar

 Russian Watermelon Pickles

Prep time: 15 minutes  |   Pickling time: 1 to 4 days

My first taste of pickled watermelon was an eye-blinking moment. It took two beats to recalibrate my watermelon flavor bank, not unlike the momentous first taste of watermelon-feta salad a decade ago. First, the surface is satiny smooth and the scent is fresh and bright, then, biting into a wedge, there’s a flood of new textures and savors—smooth, crunchy, sweet, and salty all layered with celery, dill, garlic, and allspice. Obviously I came out the other side of the experience totally smitten.  


HUNTING-GATHERING

The ideal WATERMELON for pickling is firm fleshed and on the rising side of ripeness. Select a melon with a fair sized white-to-yellow belly, which indicates it hasn’t moved and the stem hasn’t twisted from the vine. In most varieties, a yellower belly means a riper melon, so go for the whiter end of the spectrum. DILL is the crowning seasoning, essential to any Russian pickle. Try to find thick stemmed shoots—pickled dill stems are a wonderful thing.

whole heirloom Congo watermelon for pickled watermelon


INGREDIENTS

Once you’ve decided how much watermelon to pickle and made the brine, you’re free to improvise additional ingredients and flavorings. Listed below are what I consider the essentials along some nice additions. But don’t limit yourself to these. Experiment. (I plan to try quartered green tomatoes in my next batch.)

Russian watermelon pickle ingredients, pickled watermelon floating in brine

ESSENTIALS   Watermelon  •  Allspice    Bay leaves    Black peppercorns  •  Celery  •  Fresh dill with stems    Garlic   NICE ADDITIONS   Carrots  •  Celery seed  •  Coriander  •  Hot pepper — jalapeño, serrano, cayenne, red pepper flakes  •  Mustard seed  •  Onion  •  Sweet pepper — banana, bell, pimento

METHOD
  1. Prepare the watermelon. Cut pieces the size and shape that suits you. Peel, or leave on the peel. I like how biggish wedges stay crisper and I leave on the skin. You can always trim them down before serving if you like.
  2. Make the brine. To figure how much salt you’ll need, fit the watermelon pieces into the non reactive container (or containers) you’re using. Cover with water then transfer it to a measuring cup. Add the appropriate amount of salt and stir to dissolve.

BRINE PROPORTION: 1 tablespoon Kosher salt per pint (2 cups) of water.

  1. Prepare the pickle batch. Return the salt water to the container of watermelon. Add allspice, bay leaves, black peppercorns, celery, dill, garlic, and other ingredients you’re using. Use a plate or saucer that fits inside the container to weigh down the ingredients. Cover the container with a kitchen towel to keep out insects.
  2. Let it ferment. By 24 hours you’ll likely see some bubbles and maybe some frothy foam. That’s good. In warm weather, it normally takes 2 or 4 days for the transformation to occur. Deciding when to move the batch to the fridge to slow down the pickling process is a matter of taste. I prefer to go short—as soon as I detect a tinge of tangy of lacto-fermentation (think half-sour pickles) my batch goes to the fridge.

TIP. You can jump start the process by adding a spoonful of brine from another batch of fermented pickles. That’s what I did with my latest batch and it was ready for the fridge in exactly 24 hours.

  1. Serving time. Russian watermelon pickles should be served icy cold. Dip them from the brine right before serving so they’re plump and juicy, or serve from a bowl along with some brine. Pickles will keep for a month or two. After a week or 10 days their crunch factor diminishes and texture becomes softer and denser, at the same time, flavor becomes more complex. Finding the balance between the texture that suits and the flavor you like is a matter of personal taste. I like mine on the crunchy side. When I’m planning to serve watermelon pickles for a specific meal, I start a batch 3 to 5 days ahead so I can chill them a day or two.

Pickled watermelon on plate, Russian pickle watermelon

variation: WATERMELON QUICK PICKLES. To make a crunchy-salty-tart-spicy watermelon side dish or salad in a few hours, add sugar in equal measure to the the salt in the brine formula described above and replace about a third of the water with distilled or cider vinegar. Also, bump up the seasonings, especially hot peppers if you like some heat. The quick pickles will be ready to eat in about 4 hours—longer is better—and will store for a week or two.


 

If you want to waste some more time, I’ll leave you with this wacky Russian Youtube.
MY TITLE: MAKING A BUCKETFUL OF PICKLED WATERMELON FOR THE STALIN PARADE
It’s a bit long, gets a little loud, and perhaps it’s unPC in the translation. Nonetheless.
Stalin was from Georgia which is a hotbed of watermelon pickling.
I wonder if Stalin was a watermelon pickle fan?

 

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Chris Bryant

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