Beer and Wasabi Pickled Cucumbers (きゅうりのビール漬)
Throughout most of its history, Japan was an agrarian society centered on producing rice and vegetables. That's why it's no surprise that traditional Japanese food focuses on white rice, along with foods that go along with rice to season it. Japanese pickled cucumber is a popular summertime side dish; in my opinion, this is the easiest and most flavorful way of preparing it.
Table of contents
Why This Recipe Works?
- By cutting the cucumbers, they pickle much faster than if you were to pickle them whole.
- The salt in the brine is balanced out by sugar which keeps these Japanese pickles from tasting too salty.
- Beer adds loads of umami to the pickled cucumber without needing to add umami boosters like MSG or konbu.
- Wasabi adds a spicy kick and fragrant aroma that goes perfectly with the green flavor of cucumbers.
Ingredients for Japanese Pickled Cucumber
- Cucumbers - I used Japanese cucumbers, but any thin-skinned variety harvested before the seeds can mature, such as Lebanese, Persian, or hot house cucumbers, will work.
- Salt - There's no need to use fancy salt here. I used regular table salt.
- Sugar - The sugar balances out the salt in the brine preventing the pickles from tasting too salty.
- Beer - The brewing process used to produce beer breaks down proteins in the malt into amino acids such as glutamate. These compounds are perceived as umami in your mouth. That's why beer makes for such a good liquid to brine pickles in. I recommend using a malty beer that is not too bitter. Since the beer is not cooked, the pickles will contain some alcohol. If you're concerned about this, you can boil the beer, salt, and sugar together until it no longer smells like alcohol. Once the mixture cools to room temperature, you can add the wasabi and cucumbers.
- Wasabi - Wasabi is the name of a plant in the same family as mustard and cabbage. The spicy condiment that goes by the same name is made by grating the knobby rhizome of the wasabi plant. I used fresh wasabi for this, but the stuff that comes in a tube will also work. It's worth noting that most packaged wasabi isn't made from true wasabi (it's usually a mixture of mustard and horseradish with coloring).
- Chili peppers - This is optional, but chili peppers add a different kind of heat from wasabi, so I like to add a few dried chilies for some extra kick. I used some homegrown Facing Heaven Peppers.
How to Make Wasabi
If you are lucky enough to find fresh wasabi, you're in for a real treat. Most packaged wasabi is made from the stems and leaves of the wasabi plant or with a combination of horseradish, mustard, and food coloring. Real wasabi is made by grating the rhizome that forms at the base of the wasabi plant.
To prepare it, you first want to use a paring knife to trim away any dark areas. It's necessary to pulverize the wasabi to get the most flavor from it. This releases an enzyme that activates the aromatic allyl isothiocyanate in the wasabi giving it its pungent flavor. This is traditionally achieved by grating wasabi on a sharkskin grater. You can also get a ceramic grater with burs that achieves a similar effect. I do not recommend using a rasp-type grater like a Microplane as this is not as effective at rupturing the cells.
When preparing wasabi, keep in mind that the rhizome grows from the bottom up. The area closest to the stems is the youngest and, therefore, more tender and flavorful. The opposite end is the oldest and tends to be more stringy. I recommend using the older side for these pickles and saving the good side for use with sashimi or sushi.
Fresh wasabi doesn't keep for very long, so you can grate all of it and then pack the paste in a plastic freezer bag before flattening it out and freezing it. This makes it easy to break off and defrost portions of wasabi as you need it.
How to Make Japanese Pickled Cucumber
Wash the cucumbers well and then trim both ends off of each one. Next, slice the cucumbers into an oblique shape by holding your knife at a forty-five-degree angle to the cucumber and rotating it a quarter turn after each cut. The extra surface area of this cut helps pickle the cucumber quickly while preserving its crunchy texture.
Add the cut cucumbers to a non-reactive container or bowl along with the salt, sugar, beer, wasabi, and chili peppers. Stir the the mixture together until the salt and sugar have dissolved.
Cover, and let the cucumbers pickle in the refrigerator overnight.
Other Japanese Pickle Recipes
Western pickles tend to be tangy because they either undergo lacto-fermentation or they're brined in vinegar. In Japan, we have many styles of pickled vegetables or tsukemono (literally "pickled thing"), and drying and fermentation are two methods used to preserve fresh vegetables for winter. In summer, "lightly pickled" vegetables called asazuke are preferred because it allows you to enjoy the freshness of summer vegetables like cucumbers. In this style, the vegetables are soaked in a saltwater brine for a relatively short amount of time and are consumed before they start to ferment.
Japanese Pickled Cucumber is a 4-syllable name pronounced as follows (read the italicized parts).
tsu like eat soup
ke like kept
mo like motor
no like normal
Since the beer is not cooked, the pickles will contain some alcohol, but it is not a noticeable amount for most people. If you are worried about this, you can boil the alcohol off the beer before using it in this recipe.
It will not taste the same, but you can substitute water and a pinch of MSG for the beer to make these Japanese pickles.
The brine can be reused, but because cucumbers release a lot of water into the brine, you will need to add more salt and sugar. Another option is to use the diluted brine as is and serve the pickles with soy sauce.
- 500 grams cucumbers (5 Japanese cucumbers)
- 20 grams salt (1 generous tablespoon)
- 60 grams evaporated cane sugar (~⅓ cup)
- ¾ cup beer
- 1 tablespoon wasabi
- chili peppers (to taste)
- Cut the cucumbers using an oblique cut (see the video above for the technique).
- Add the cucumbers to a container with a lid along with the salt, sugar, beer, wasabi, and chili peppers. Stir or shake the mixture together until the salt and sugar have dissolved. If you are doing this in a container, make sure you open the lid a few times to release the pressure from the beer.
- Let the cucumbers soak in the brine overnight. These pickles are best consumed within a week.