Classically, pickled ginger is made with vinegar, sugar, salt and shizo leaf (to add the pink/red color). These days, most pickled ginger is artificially dyed to make it pink, an ingredient some people like to avoid. If you live near a Japanese market, you can often find fresh shizo leaves to add to your pickled ginger, or you can do as Eric does in this video on picking fennel: pop in a few pitted umiboshi plums to your brine mixture. Umiboshi are made with shizo leaves and will impart a pale pink hue to your pickles. Of course, you can always just leave the pickles undyed. If you use the classic rice vinegar, they will be a beautiful pale yellow color.
Try using different vinegars such as raspberry or fig, suggests Eric. Pair this with a sweetener like maple syrup or honey and you will end up with a unique, nuanced pickled ginger. Eric cuts the sweetener way back, basically using it to taste. In his recipe below, he calls for just 2 tablespoons of honey, much less than the classic recipes which call for up to 3/4 cup of sugar. Jam is another sweetener of choice, which will add a unique layer of flavor to the ginger. Also notable is the lack of salt which Eric doesn't feel is necessary.
Breakaway Pickled Ginger
Recipe from Eric Gower of Breakaway Cook
Makes 1 cup pickled ginger slices
Traditional gari, as it's called in Japan, is made from rice vinegar and white sugar, but it's much better when made with quality ingredients. Fruit vinegars (raspberry, fig, and Muscat) work especially well, but so do balsamic and wine vinegars. For the sweetener, try agave nectar, a good local honey, maple syrup, or your favorite sweet syrup. I've even used excellent jam to great effect. Mature ginger will also work, but the young variety is superior. Check produce specialists like Berkeley Bowl or any Asian market.
The dish is still good with older ginger, too, so if you can't find young ginger don't let that stop you from making it. I use an inexpensive plastic Japanese-style Benriner mandoline to slice the ginger, but you can also use a sharp knife or vegetable peeler. The formula is easy to remember: one part ginger, one part vinegar, and a touch of sweetener to taste.
1 cup shaved baby ginger
1/2 cup fruit vinegar 1/2 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons honey, or to taste
To shave the ginger, use a spoon to peel off the skin, then slice it very thinly with a knife, vegetable peeler or mandoline.
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the ginger, and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain, and transfer the ginger to a bowl. Add the vinegars and honey, and mix well.
Transfer to a jar and refrigerate. The flavors are excellent immediately, but will improve with time. And it seems to keep forever.
Tip: Try this alternative version, made with black raspberry vinegar and maple syrup.