At Home in the Adirondacks 2011
Pickling made easy
by Elizabeth Folwell
Her recipes were stored in a little metal box on hand-written cards stained by cider vinegar. She also left a big enamel canning pot with a round rack that ﬁt inside. From my mother-in-law I received a 120-year-old wire jar-lifter with hardwood handles, the perfect tool for the tricky job of placing or retrieving objects in a bubbling cauldron.
Every summer meant pickles in our house, begun the day they were harvested. Maybe this was why my mother never used alum or grape leaves to produce a crisp result; the cucumbers were as crunchy as apples, the beans truly snapped when bent. The sink would be ﬁlled with the current bounty, sorted, rinsed (no ﬂoaters allowed—these meant the cavities were hollow), scrubbed and scrutinized for minute defects. Green beans—Blue Lake or other classic bush varieties—were stemmed, then selected to make perfectly uniform pencil packs in each jar. Bumpy, stubby cukes (the old-school favorite Wisconsin SMR 58) were denuded of their spikes, chopped at both ends (the blossom end contains enzymes that may harm the ﬁnished product), then heaped into piles of consistent diameter for rounds to be shaved thin with a mandoline.
Pickling salt in a ﬁve-pound bag came out of the cellar to make the brine that transformed fresh vegetable to preserved one. Pale green wheels swam in the liquor, then were submerged when a plate pushed them under, a jar full of water on top to ensure no morsel was exposed to air.
Our house was modern: we had a dishwasher for sterilizing jars and lids. The kitchen billowed with steam when its door was opened and hot glasses were lined up on the countertop. Gallons of vinegar and pounds of brown sugar waited patiently. On the cutting board were cloves of garlic, slices of white onion, heads of dill. Mustard—powder in a Colman’s tin the size of a brick, and tawny mustard seeds in a restaurant pack—stood by the other ﬂavor agents: allspice berries, spiky cloves, pungent peppercorns, bits of cinnamon, ﬂakes of hot pepper, turmeric, celery seed and more in orange, rust, carmine—the exotic shades and textures of foreign lands that never appeared in any other food in our house. Pickles were a trusted venture into international cuisine through a distinctly Middle American portal.
Watching my mother move methodically, it was apparent the act of creating pickles does not allow for multitasking. It’s a stately procession of individual acts that require focus. Weather doesn’t play the same role it does in baking, so the second-most important ingredient is time to do everything without rushing. The primary ingredient, of course, is whatever your garden offers up in perfect abundance.
Here we present a selection of quick-process pickles plus new Adirondack approaches, along with tips, tricks and a little kitchen science. All these recipes use a boiling-water bath; we’re saving the controlled rot of kraut and kimchi for another day.
Pick Only the Best
Crafting pickles takes a signiﬁcant time commitment, and it makes no sense to waste your energy on anything that is not extremely fresh and blemish-free. Waxed store-bought cukes are not suitable. Likewise rubbery carrots or tired yellow onions that are beginning to sprout.
The Essential Triad
Plain old pickling salt—never iodized—is critical in these recipes. Too much and your end product is shriveled and unappetizing. Too little and you risk inviting bad bacteria into the jars, creating squishy items suitable only for the compost heap. In some of these recipes a brine promotes the creation of lactic acid bacteria, the good microbe found in kosher dills. Canning salt dissolves well and has a consistent density; sea salt is for experienced picklers only. Acid is another key component that prevents spoilage, and vinegar at ﬁve- to seven-percent acidity is what you want. Some specialty ﬂavored vinegars don’t offer this level of sourness, so they’re best saved for simple refrigerator salads, like Thai or wilted cucumbers. Sugar is used in many quick-process pickles since it helps retard the growth of nasty microbes, molds and yeasts. The combination of vinegar and sugar (white, brown or even maple) appears in numerous recipes for its balance of tart and sweet.
Glass or ceramic bowls—never metal—are the vessels for prepping and brining. You’ll need perfect canning jars, not just recycled ones that look like a standard lid and band may ﬁt. Inspect each one fully; a chipped or cracked jar may explode when subjected to high heat. Ball bands and virgin lids are essential for properly sealed jars. A ﬁve-gallon canning kettle in enameled metal or aluminum, with a wire rack that keeps the glass jar bottoms just off the ﬂoor of the pot, is another player on the team.
There are many handy devices for ﬁlling jars, like wide funnels, ladles and so forth. One of my favorite tools is a giant spoon set at a 90° angle to a long handle so the pointed end pours easily into a jar opening. Cheesecloth is called for in some recipes so you can pull the spices out of the syrup. A good tool for releasing air bubbles is a plastic picnic knife, which won’t react with vinegar.
Getting into Hot Water
Sugar, salt and vinegar ﬂavor and preserve vegetables and fruit, but the way to assure that pickles will last—safely—is to place jars in a boiling-water bath. Once your jars are full and lids screwed on, they’re set in hot water that’s an inch above the jar top. The kettle is brought to a full rolling boil for at least 10 minutes. This insures that the jar contents all reach 212° and helps create the vacuum seal as things cool off.
For a batch of half-pints you can use a smaller stockpot with a wire rack in the bottom but be sure the jars are well covered with water.
Pickles can be stored in a cool, dark place for a year or more. When it’s time to serve, discard any jars that spurt out contents, smell funny, look cloudy or have mold anywhere on the jar, lid or vegetables themselves. Garlic that’s tinged with blue or green is OK, surprisingly; there’s a chemical in very fresh garlic that may react with acid and cause this coloration.
Polly’s Hot Veggies
Neighbors in Blue Mountain Lake share their extra cucumbers (always welcome) and zucchini (not always welcome), and Polly has a way of jumbling bumper crops in this easy version of giardiniera. No amounts are given, so you can mix up whatever is in season.
Cut into chunks of roughly the same size: carrots, celery, cauliflower, peppers, green tomatoes, green beans, etc. Pack—not too tight and not too loose—into sterilized quart jars.
Boil enough water to cover the jars to 1 inch above lids.
Add to each jar:
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon pickling salt
Make pickling liquid of 1:1 cider vinegar and water, about 2½ cups per quart of vegetables. Bring to a full boil. Pour over vegetables in jars; release air bubbles with a knife blade; wipe jar rims with damp paper towel; place lids and bands. Screw tightly; you’ll need to grasp the hot jars with a potholder. Place in canning pot with jar-lifter or remove the jar rack and load it.
Process 10 minutes for quarts. Remove from kettle and let cool on countertop. Listen for the “pop” as lids seal, then tighten bands a little more. Allow to rest in your pantry at least a month before serving. These are best chilled.
Freestyling: Add several toes of fresh, mild garlic to each jar. Include pearl onions, tame or wild leeks and/or brussels sprouts cut in halves or quarters depending on size. You can fill jars with raw asparagus that are about ¾ of an inch in diameter and use this technique, but don’t mix asparagus and other vegetables since the asparagus flavor is so strong. Try 1 teaspoon curry powder in addition to turmeric and/or a tiny hot Thai pepper.
Helen’s Dilly Beans
My mom’s note calls for 10 pounds of beans, so we’ve downsized here. Provider, a widely available hybrid bush green bean, produces very uniform, straight pods.
2 pounds very fresh green beans, washed and stems removed
Lay a pint jar on your counter and cut one bean to fit perfectly inside without bending. Use this as your guide to trim all other beans.
You’ll need 4–6 sterilized pint jars.
In each jar place:
1 teaspoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 head fresh dill
Pack beans in the jar so the dill spreads attractively up from the bottom. Add 2 cloves garlic. When jars are nearly full, top with 1 wheel of white onion and another head of dill, like an umbrella.
3 cups water
3 cups cider vinegar
¼ cup pickling salt
Bring to a boil and pour over beans in jars. Remove air bubbles. Seal carefully with lids and bands. Place in a boiling water bath 10 minutes for pints.
Freestyling: Use smoked paprika in place of red pepper; if you’ve ever tried Smokra—pickled okra with a wonderfully smoky flavor—you know the taste. You can alternate wax beans with the green ones for a pretty presentation or use all haricot or Romano beans too. Green cherry tomatoes—pricked with a needle so they don’t explode in the canning kettle—can be pickled with these ingredients and techniques. They are delicious in a martini, in lieu of the traditional olive.
Della Cook’s Icicle Pickles
Della, who grew up in a Northeast Kingdom farm family, was the great-grandmother of a friend, and she began compiling her recipes in 1906. She had strong opinions on how to handle the cucumbers and insisted they be brined in a straight-sided crock; the plate submerging the vegetables had to be weighted with a clean rock.
1 peck 3-inch cucumbers, washed and split lengthwise
Soak 1 week in brine of 2 cups salt per gallon of water to cover. Do not touch with hands after cutting. At end of week, drain and cover with boiling water. Let stand 24 hours. Drain and cover with cold water and 1 heaping tablespoon alum. Let stand 24 hours, then drain.
5 pounds sugar
1 quart vinegar
1 pint water
1 teaspoon oil of cinnamon
½ teaspoon oil of cloves
Boil syrup and pour over pickles in crock. Drain and reheat liquid every day for 4 days. Can on 4th day, 15 minutes for quarts.
Freestyling: After the sweet pickles are gone, try putting store-bought kosher dills in the syrup for a few days and refrigerating. They’ll end up somewhere between a truly sweet pickle and a deli dill.
Neighbor Lady Pickled Pears
I grew up where pears were abundant, and now a few growers in the Champlain Valley offer hardy varieties that are great for pickling. Asian pears, harvested in Quebec and sold at orchards in Peru, New York, have the firm flesh and mild flavor necessary to this condiment.
12 large firm pears, peeled, cored and sliced into quarters
1 cup honey
¾ cup vinegar
1 stick cinnamon
1 cup sweet wine (this is all the recipe says—could be white zinfandel, Riesling or Sauterne)
Combine in large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then add pear pieces and simmer 5 minutes; ladle into sterilized half-pint jars. Process 10 minutes.
Freestyling: Substitute port for the sweet wine. Serve with pork, using sauce as a glaze and placing pears on the side. Also great with cheese soufflé or with shortbread cookies and vanilla ice cream.
Eleanor’s Pickled Rhubarb
When she retired to live in town full-time, Blue Mountain Lake must have seemed downright tropical to this neighbor who had spent summers in Labrador with her geologist husband. Eleanor was an avid gardener who grew herbs, berries and rhubarb.
8 cups raw rhubarb
4 cups chopped onions
4 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup vinegar 1 clove garlic, minced 1 teaspoon pickling spice
If rhubarb is pencil thin, cut to fit in half-pint jars. If it’s thicker, cut into 2-inch chunks. Combine all but last 2 ingredients in a nonreactive saucepan. Place garlic and pickling spice in cheesecloth bag and add to the pot. Simmer until rhubarb is crisp/tender and ladle into sterilized jars. Process 5 minutes for half-pints.
Freestyling: You can simmer longer, until rhubarb is quite tender, and skip the boiling-water bath if you refrigerate the jars after they cool. These will keep in the icebox for 6 months. Serve with rare leg of lamb, venison roast, wild turkey or other robust meat.
Hilda’s Mustard Pickles
Hilda, who lived well into her 90s in Blue Mountain Lake, was a stalwart source for church bake-sale treats, and her vintage-recipe mustard pickles were popular among family and friends. This recipe came from her daughter Bessie. Make sure to keep the gravylike sauce lump-free.
Cut into chunks:
1 quart small cucumbers
1 quart large cucumbers
1 quart green tomatoes
2 sweet red peppers
1 small head cauliflower
1 quart “button” or fresh pearl onions
Place all vegetables in a ceramic or glass bowl and cover with a brine of 1 cup pickling salt dissolved in 1 gallon water. Let stand, covered with weighted plate, at room temperature for 24 hours. The next day drain vegetables, rinse with cold water and place in sterilized pint jars.
2 quarts white or cider vinegar
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
6 tablespoons dry mustard
Combine all in a saucepan, heat gently and whisk until smooth. Bring to a boil and pour over vegetables, making sure the sauce flows between all the pieces. Fill to within ½ an inch of top of jar, then use a knife to release air bubbles (there may be many, so go between the jar wall and vegetables, into the center of the jar as you gently rotate it). Process in boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
Freestyling: Use the sauce for grilled fish, chicken or pork loin. The pickles, chopped fine, make a great Cubano sandwich.
Paul’s “Holy Smokes” Pickles
Paul Johnson, who operates Standard Falls café in Upper Jay in the summer, says, “I always reach for these to accompany a sandwich. They get rave reviews at the bakery.” The name comes from customer exclamations when they taste these crunchy, sweet pickles.
5 pounds fresh firm cucumbers, sliced (If you don’t have a scale fill a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup 4 times, which will be close to 5 pounds.)
1 cup salt
8 cups water
In another container, mix brine. The water should be as cold as your storage place is, like a cool basement. (It is important to avoid temperature fluctuations, so if you have to use a refrigerator for the steps that follow, chill the water ahead of time.) Pour the brine over the cucumbers. Push the cucumbers down with a plate, cover container with cling wrap and let stand for a week.
Drain and rinse the cucumbers in cool water. Thoroughly rinse the container in hot tap water, return the cucumbers to the bowl or crock and pour 8 cups boiling water over them. Rinse the plate and put back on top and cover. Let cucumbers rest for 24 hours. If you are using refrigeration wait until the container is cool before putting it in.
After 24 hours drain and rinse the cucumbers. Rinse the container in hot tap water.
8 cups boiling water
1 tablespoon alum
In another bowl, mix boiling water and alum, return cucumbers to container and pour the hot alum solution over them.
Put the plate back on top and cover with wrap. Let them rest for 24 hours in the same cool place or refrigerator. After 24 hours drain well.
5 cups cider vinegar
8 cups sugar
8–10 cinnamon sticks
1 tablespoon mustard seed
¼ cup pickling spices wrapped in cheesecloth
In a stainless steel pot, bring syrup to a full rolling boil. Pour over cucumbers and let stand 24 hours. Drain the liquid into your pan and bring to a boil. Pour back over the cucumbers and let rest for 4 days. On the last day, drain the liquid into a stainless pot. Discard the spice bag. Bring the liquid to a boil. Prep your water bath. Sterilize your lids, bands and jars; while jars are hot, pack the cucumbers in tightly. Add a cinnamon stick or 2 to each jar. Pour the boiling syrup to within 1 inch of the lid and seal. Process pints for 10 minutes. Remove from bath and cool.
For a Jarring Experience
The Joy of Pickling: 250 Flavor-Packed Recipes for Vegetables and More from Garden or Market by Linda Ziedrich (Harvard Common Press, 2009, $18.95). The revised edition has global reach and exotic tastes as well as classics.
Pickles and Preserves by Marion Brown (University of North Carolina Press, 2002, $22). Originally published in the 1950s, the new edition includes more than 400 recipes ranging from heirloom favorites to offbeat combinations like blueberry ketchup and pickled artichokes.
The Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving (Alltrista Consumer Products, 2004, $5.99). Techniques for all manner of saving the harvest as well as time-tested recipes make this compendium a must for the home canner.
Tart and Sweet: 101 Canning and Pickling Recipes for the Modern Kitchen by Kelly Geary and Jessie Knadler (Rodale Books, 2011, $24.99). A creative take on pickling and canning with unusual recipes, like wasabi green beans, arranged by season.
Jarden, maker of jars and other supplies, has an excellent website with videos, and also sponsors a nationwide Can-It Forward Day in August. See www.freshpreserving.com for more information.
Special thanks to Barbara Smith, of Buttons Buttons in Jay, and Julie Robards, of Red Barn Antiques in Upper Jay, for pickling props.