Indian pickles are a treat: spicy, salty and indescribably delicious. They are served at most Indian meals, but taste especially amazing with dal and rice. If you've been to an Indian restaurant, you've probably had some served to you alongside poppadum and chutney.
But those restaurant pickles, and in fact all storebought Indian pickles (which are easy to find at Indian grocery stores), fall terribly short when compared to a homemade pickle. Not only does a homemade version taste much better, it also has something that those off-the-shelf versions, which are heavily pasteurized, don't: probiotic bacteria.
I never saw myself making homemade pickles until a few years ago when I began digging deeper into the benefits of probiotic foods, like sourdough breads and sauerkraut. I had grown up eating Indian pickles, and everyone at home, including Jay, loves them, but even so we only ever bought them at the store. As I looked deeper into the process of making pickles, it seemed a shame not to try making a version at home that would have the added probiotic benefit.
Unfortunately, in India, too, making homemade pickles is a dying art and I couldn't really find any good recipes online. So over the years I've created my own recipe for lime pickle or nimbu ka achaar, which is my favorite Indian pickle, tweaking this and that and arriving at a flavorful condiment we love.
Why you'll love this Indian lime pickle
- It's delicious. If American pickles steeped in vinegar is what you are used to (and those are delicious, I'll admit), you are in for a differently delicious treat with an Indian pickle. Indian pickles tend to be saucy (I like mine especially so), and you eat just a tiny amount at a time, using it mainly to flavor the food. So if you were eating dal and rice with a pickle, you'd mix a tiny bit of the pickle in with the dal and rice. Some Indian pickles can be incredibly spicy but my version is far from that; in fact it has just the right combination of tart and spice to make you fall in love.
- It's gut-friendly. Indian pickles are fermented in the hot sun and contain tons of gut-friendly bacteria. In fact, that's why our grandmothers and great-grandmothers took such care to make them each summer, so we could reap those health benefits year-round. Storebought versions lose that benefit because they have to pass health checks and are heavily pasteurized, which kills off the live cultures.
- It's easy to make. It might sound like a painstaking thing to do, making pickles at home, but the process really can't be easier. Putting the recipe together takes minutes, in fact. You do have to remember to leave your pickles out on a hot, sunny porch or stoop for a week, but that's not really work and it's a job you could easily enlist your kids to help with.
- Limes. You can use lemons, but you want a really thin skinned lemon or lime, as you will be pickling the rind. A tough rind will soften but will still remain quite tough, albeit edible. Also it is best to use organic limes for pickling.
- Nigella or onion seeds or kalonji: These are charcoal-black seeds that, you guessed it, sprout onions when planted. They help create, with the next two seed ingredients, the flavor unique to Indian pickles.
- Fenugreek seeds: Not everyone uses fenugreek seeds in lime pickles, but I love them here for the slight hint of bittersweet flavor and for their immeasurable health properties. Fenugreek seeds are prebiotic, which makes them a great addition to fermented Indian foods, like dosas and, of course, these pickles.
- Fennel seeds: With their great digestive properties and fresh, delicious flavor, fennel seeds, like the other seeds here, are key to creating the unique flavor of an Indian pickle.
- Cayenne or paprika or Kashmiri chili powder: I am giving you a few options here so you can adjust the heat level in the pickles to your liking. Cayenne is best for the hottest pickle: use as much or as little as you like. Paprika and Kashmiri chili powder will add great color but are both milder. Do use one of these: you want some heat in the pickle.
- Salt: Salt is the preservative here, and a key flavoring ingredient. One of the reasons I like making my own pickles is that I can control how much salt I add. In this recipe I add between ¼ to ½ a cup. I think the smaller quantity works perfectly, but if you like really salty pickles you can use more.
- Turmeric: For color and health
- Mustard seeds: Mustard seeds are, like fennel, fenugreek and nigella, key flavoring ingredients for an Indian pickle.
- Vegetable oil: Many Indian pickles are made with mustard oil. I sometimes use mustard oil when I can source it from the Indian store; it is not easily available at grocery stores in the United States. While mustard oil adds great flavor, any vegetable oil that can withstand high heat, like safflower, sunflower or peanut oil, will give you very good results. Also, when you sputter the mustard seeds in the oil, they will leach their delicious flavor into the oil.
How to make an Indian lime pickle
- Begin by sterilizing a quart-sized mason jar in boiling water. Let the jar dry thoroughly before using.
- Place the nigella, fenugreek and fennel seeds in a small skillet and roast them for 3-5 minutes over medium heat until they are very fragrant and just a shade or two darker. Powder them in a spice grinder and set aside.
- Wash the limes and dry them thoroughly with a clean kitchen towel. You want to make sure there is no water clinging to them. Then cut the limes into bite-sized pieces. If using smallish limes, quarter them. If they are larger, cut them into ½-inch pieces. Place them in a bowl.
- Add the powdered fennel-fenugreek-nigella mix to the bowl with the limes. Add cayenne or paprika or Kashmiri chili powder, turmeric and salt to the bowl. Toss with the limes.
- Heat the oil over high heat. Once hot, add the mustard seeds and let them begin to sputter.
- Turn off the heat and quickly but carefully pour the hot oil and mustard seeds into the bowl with the limes. Use a spoon to mix everything thoroughly.
- Carefully transfer the pickles to the mason jar. Seal with the lid. Place in full sun every day for 5-7 days for at least 6-8 hours. Bring it in at night and turn the jar around, without opening it, to ensure the ingredients move around and mix.
- After your pickles are ready, refrigerate them. They should last you in the refrigerator for a year.
Key food safety tip
With any fermented food, there is a chance of mold developing. It should not happen if you ensure there is no water remaining on the limes and the mason jar you use to store the pickles is thoroughly sterilized. Also make sure you don't cut down on the amount of oil--it might seem a lot, but remember, that jar of pickles has at least 40-50 servings.
If you do see mold develop on the pickles at any point, discard it immediately.
What to serve the lime pickle with
Or serve it with this Masala Khichdi.
Indian Lime Pickle
- Glass bowl
- Small skillet
- A sterilized, quart-sized mason jar
- 8 medium-large limes (make sure they are as thin skinned as possible. Wash and dry the limes thoroughly. Quarter or cut them into ½-inch pieces.)
- 2 tsp fenugreek seeds
- 2 tsp nigella seeds (kalonji)
- 1 tbsp fennel seeds (saunf)
- 2 (heaping) tbsp cayenne (or paprika or Kashmiri chili powder)
- 1 tbsp turmeric
- 1 tsp asafetida (hing)
- ¼ to ½ cup salt (I use Himalayan pink salt but any finely ground salt is fine. You can use more for saltier pickles. Don't use less because you need the salt as a preservative for the pickles)
- 1 cup vegetable oil (mustard oil is preferred, but any vegetable oil that can withstand high temperatures without burning, like peanut oil, safflower oil, canola oil and sunflower oil, will work.)
- 2 tbsp mustard seeds
- Heat a skillet over medium heat. Add the fenugreek, fennel and nigella seeds to the skillet and toast until very fragrant, 3-5 minutes. Remove to a bowl, let them cool, then powder in a spice grinder or blender.
- Place the limes in a clean, dry glass or ceramic bowl. Add the ground spices in step 1 along with the paprika or cayenne, turmeric, asafetida and salt. Mix well with a clean, dry spoon.
- Heat the oil in the same skillet you used to toast the spices. Once it's hot, add the mustard seeds. Wait until they begin to sputter, then turn off the heat.
- Carefully, standing back a little, pour the hot oil into the bowl with the limes and spices. Mix thoroughly, then transfer to the sterilized mason jar.
- Place the mason jar in the hot, full sun on your deck, porch or stoop for 5-7 days, for at least 6-8 hours each day. Turn the mason jar upside down and around each day to ensure the sauce and spices move around the jar.
- Once the pickle is ready, refrigerate immediately.