Your Guide to Making Tsukemono (Japanese Pickles)
Make Japanese pickles with your next meal of miso soup and rice for a fresh crunchy side dish.
Enjoying a small side of tsukemono (Japanese pickles) alongside a bowl of rice and curry is a classic combo in Japanese cuisine. It’s like topping spaghetti with Parmesan or having mustard on your sandwich—it ties the whole dish together.
Growing up, we’d always make what we called “cucumber salad” as a side for our rice, chicken teriyaki or stew to add a refreshing, crunchy element to our dinner. My grandma had her special way of preparing the cucumber, being careful to peel off the right amount of skin, slicing it to the perfect thickness and adding toasted sesame seeds for extra flavor. My mom had her own method of roughly chopping the cucumber, removing the watery seeds and letting it brine in the vinegar mixture overnight.
There are many variations to making Japanese pickles at home, and they go beyond the humble cucumber. Plus, they can be made fairly easily as long as you’ve got salt!
What Is Tsukemono?
In Japanese cooking, you’ll almost always have some sort of pickle to accompany your dinner as a way to provide a refreshing garnish or side. Some pickles are sweet and vinegary, others are salty, and some are umami-packed.
Tsukemono literally translates to “pickled things” and involves salt or a brine to tenderize and preserve vegetables. There are almost endless combinations of tsukemono you can enjoy, including common vegetables like cucumber, ginger, radish, bamboo shoots and cabbage.
How to Make Tsukemono
Here’s the basic process for making tsukemono. I’ll walk you through the process for specific vegetables, below.
- Brine or marinade
The most basic tsukemono is made with just salt (shiozuke) and brings out the delicious pure flavor of that vegetable. Many tsukemono are made with some sort of brine or marinade to permeate the flavor of the vegetable using ingredients like soy sauce (shoyuzuke), rice vinegar (suzuke), miso (misozuke) or rice bran (nukazuke). While a couple require specific Japanese ingredients, most can be made without a trip to a specialty store.
All tsukemono are relatively quick and simple to make and you can experiment with the same vegetable and a few preparations to learn which flavor combinations you enjoy most.
Step 1: Prepare the vegetables
With any vegetable you choose for tsukemono, it’s important to give the outside a good rinse to remove any dirt. Then chop the vegetable into bite-sized pieces, whether that’s thinly sliced, in wedges or strips.
Step 2: Remove excess liquid
A key step in making tsukemono is drawing out excess liquid. You do this by adding salt to the flesh of the vegetables and letting them sit at least 10 minutes until they sweat. With some firmer vegetables like carrots or eggplant, you can even place a weight on top like a heavy pot or even a can to help draw out the moisture. Once they’ve tenderized, lightly squeeze out the water from the vegetable, and pat dry with a dish towel or paper towel.
Step 3: Make a brine
While not required to make tsukemono, many variations involve soaking the vegetables in a brine, which can be a combination of a liquid like vinegar, soy sauce or dashi, plus a seasoning like sesame seeds, sugar or green onion. You can learn over time which flavor combinations you enjoy most with different vegetables. Think of it like marinating a piece of meat to allow the vegetable to absorb the flavor and properly pickle.
Step 4: Wait for vegetables to pickle
This is perhaps the hardest part. It’s important to wait and let the vegetables absorb as much of the brine as they can to take on the flavors. For basic brines like vinegar and sugar, I’d recommend brining for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator covered, but ideally overnight.
Common Vegetables Used to Make Tsukemono
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Red Ginger (Beni Shoga)
Red ginger pickled in plum (umeboshi) brine is a popular pickle often used to garnish dishes like okonomiyaki, ramen, tonkatsu and yakisoba. Its bright red color is made from using plum vinegar, and its flavor is best characterized as bright, tangy and salty. It goes really well with fried foods to contrast the richness. To make it, peel a knob of young ginger, and thinly slice strips into a julienne. Place in a jar or sealable container and pour enough plum vinegar so it’s covered. Let it sit for at least a day, preferably a few in the fridge to impart flavor. This can last in your fridge for many months if sealed properly.
Pickled ginger is most commonly served with sushi as a garnish and palate cleanser. It’s made by peeling and thinly slicing fresh ginger and brining it in a combination of sugar and vinegar (amazu). The ginger must pickle overnight so that the vinegar and sugar can permeate and mellow out its sharpness. It should taste nicely balanced with sweetness, acidity and sharpness from the ginger’s natural spice.
To make pickled ginger, peel the skin and thinly slice into round sheets. Place it in a bowl and top with a teaspoon of salt. Let it sit for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, bring a small pot of water to boil and place salted ginger in the water to boil for about 2-3 minutes to draw out the sharpness. Strain, then place in a jar or sealable container, then cover with a mixture of 1/4 cup sugar and 1 cup rice vinegar, being sure to thoroughly stir the brine so the sugar dissolves. Let brine for at least a few hours, ideally overnight in the fridge. This can last in your fridge for many months if sealed properly.
Daikon Radish (Takuan)
Pickled daikon can be made a number of ways. Because daikon has a fairly mild flavor, similar to jicama, it has the ability to take on many seasonings. One common way to see it is called takuan, where the half-moon shaped slices are crunchy and sweet, and make a great pairing with rice, in sushi or enjoyed as a side to curry.
To make, take a whole daikon radish, peel the skin off, slice it in half lengthwise, and cut into half-moon shapes about 1/4 inch thick. Place them in a bowl or sealable container and add a teaspoon of salt to brine, being sure to toss the daikon for coverage. Once the water draws out, squeeze any excess, and pat dry. Then add a combination of 1/4 cup sugar and 1 cup rice vinegar to cover. You can optionally add a thinly sliced red chili pepper for heat. Let brine overnight in the fridge for best results. These can last in your fridge for many months if sealed properly.
I can’t quite say this tastes much like an actual plum, but these intensely sour and salty pickles are a classic tsukemono you’ll often see paired with rice on a bento box or in rice balls (onigiri). These are often an acquired taste, but those who love them find them addictive. You really can’t eat more than one or two at a time, and they’re much more time intensive than other tsukemono varieties—but that makes them all the more special!
To make umeboshi, you’ll need some specialty ingredients and equipment. First, you’ll need to find ume plums, which might require a special trip to your Asian market, along with sea salt. You’ll need to properly clean the plums and place them in a pickling crock along with sea salt. Weigh them down, and store them in a cool dry place for about a month. By this time, you’ll have made ume vinegar and softened the plums. You can save this vinegar in jars for use in other dishes. Lay out the plums on a drying rack and dry in full sun (to prevent mold growth) for three days until they start to dry and wrinkle with concentrated flavor. You can store these, dried, in a sterilized jar and they’ll keep for many months.
Cucumbers are easy to find throughout the summer and are fairly cheap. Served as a side to rice or just enjoyed on their own, this method of making cucumber tsukemono gives you a crunchy and sweet result.
Peel half the skin off a cucumber in strips lengthwise. Slice in half lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds with the back of a spoon. Slice the cucumbers into 1/8 inch slivers to make a C-shape. Place them in a bowl with a teaspoon of salt to draw out the water. Meanwhile, make the brine with 1/4 cup sugar, 1 cup rice vinegar, 1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds and a few cracks of fresh black pepper, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once the water has drawn out of the cucumbers, pat dry, then pour the brine over the mixture in a bowl or sealable container. Let it sit at least 30 minutes or overnight in the fridge. You can also add thin strips of carrots or cabbage to this pickle for other variations.
Eggplant tsukemono is often served as a side with many other pickles and can be enjoyed alongside soup or rice. Its silky texture allows for maximum absorption of flavors, and it’s often made with miso paste. While red miso is most commonly used for a bolder flavor, any type of miso paste will work.
Making tsukemono from eggplant is a good example of when using salt to draw out the water is key. First, you’ll want to wash and peel half of the skin off and cut the eggplant into thin wedges. Add a teaspoon of salt to the flesh and be sure to rub it into the surface. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes. While the eggplant sweats, make your miso mixture by combining 1/2 cup miso paste with 2 tablespoons sesame oil, 2 tablespoons mirin and 2 thinly sliced green onions to form a slightly thinner paste. Once the eggplant sweats, squeeze out the excess water and pat dry with a towel. Take the miso mixture and spread it on top like you’re lathering it with sunscreen to thoroughly coat each piece of eggplant. Press into a sealable container or jar, and let sit in the fridge overnight, or for a few days for best results.
Transform this basic root vegetable into a crunchy, tangy and sweet pickle. This dish is a great side to your rice or miso soup, and is also often used as an ingredient in soups or stews, similar to how kimchi can be added to soup as a base. By using turnip pickles in soup, it mellows out the raw tanginess to flavor the broth nicely.
To prepare senmaizuke, wash and peel the skin of a few turnips. You can choose to slice them in half lengthwise first, then slice 1/4 inch half moons, or slice them into full rounds. Put the turnip pieces in a bowl and add a teaspoon of salt to draw out the water. Mix 1/4 cup sugar, 1 cup rice vinegar and one teaspoon salt (amazuke) for the brine and add in a small piece (about 3×3 inches) of dried seaweed (kombu). Optionally, add a pinch of dried red chili flakes for some heat. Pat the turnips dry, and place in the brine solution and fridge overnight to impart the flavor. Note that kombu can get a little slimy, which is normal. If you’re not a fan of the sliminess, you’re welcome to remove it after a few hours of imparting flavor.
Cabbage is a great vegetable for pickling because it maintains its texture and absorbs the flavor nicely. Often enjoyed as a side to rice or with a bento, you can also use napa cabbage pickles within cooked dishes like an omelet or soup to impart a salty flavor.
To make napa cabbage pickles, wash and chop cabbage into 1/2 inch chunks and place in a bowl, then add a few teaspoons of salt to coat. Because of the folds and irregular surface of the cabbage, you’ll need to massage it thoroughly to let the salt in. This is also when a weight might be useful to help press the cabbage. Let that sit for at least 30 minutes and prepare the brine. Mix 1/4 cup sugar, 1 cup rice vinegar and one teaspoon salt (amazuke) for the brine and add in a small piece (about 3×3 inches) of dried seaweed (kombu). Optionally, add a pinch of dried red chili flakes for some heat. Wring out excess liquid from the cabbage and pat dry. Then pour the brine over the cabbage to coat, placing it in a jar or resealable container and let sit in the fridge overnight.