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Published: Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Refrigerator pickles a simple treat

"Guess what my first act as a retired person was," said our beloved former Corvallis city manager Jon Nelson as we chatted over glasses of wine at an event last summer.
I couldn't. Although I was pretty sure it was something quirky and food-related or he wouldn't have brought it up.
"I made my yearly batch of Jan's Bread and Butter Refrigerator Pickles."
"Why, Jon, I didn't even know you pickled!"
He nodded, a big ol' Cheshire cat grin spreading across his face.
"I made them on Aug. 5, which was literally 24 hours after walking out of city hall. First I bought 10 pounds of pickling cukes from Davis F. Farms. Brought them home and got to work.
"Two and a half hours and a couple of gallons of cukes later, my fridge was loaded with pickling cukes and I was good to go."
Then he rattled off the list of lucky recipients who were slated to receive a portion of his treasured cache. It was quite impressive.
Obviously, I agree with Jon wholeheartedly. Making refrigerator pickles is an amazing and simple thing.
I don't know if it's the fact that you go from neutral veggie to potent condiment without breaking a sweat. Or the fact that homemade pickles, when appreciated by the right people, become the culinary equivalent of REI gift certificates.
But the fact is that for very little effort on your part -- in the context of kitchen messes and psyche stresses that can occur with other forms of preserving -- you can create a bonafide culinary treasure.
Indeed, it's a great way to pickle. After scrubbing and trimming huge quantities of pickling cukes (working in 10 pound increments like Jon is not unheard of), I simply tumble them into large containers, throw in handfulls of sliced fresh garlic, fresh dill heads and red pepper flakes, and pour on my spicy, salty, boiling-hot vinegar and water brine.
The final stop? The refrigerator. No fussing with little canning jars and lids, and boiling water canners.
The activity is so stress- and mess-free, and produces such a marvelously flavored and textured pickle, I will never go back to processing -- unless all refrigerator rights in my mom's garage refrigerator suddenly are revoked. Which is unlikely, since she too hass become a refrigerator pickle fan.
For every party, picnic and football tailgater throughout the year, Mom really loves dipping into "our" garage pickle supply.
Good thing I always figure on about 15 gallons.
In case you haven't gone this route yet, here's my helpful-hints list, sub-titled, "Variables to consider for dynamic refrigerator pickling":
Containers. This is where refrigerator pickling shines. You don't have to worry about canning jars and two-piece lids. Plastic works just fine, as long as it's food-grade. Select whatever size and shape suits your refrigerator; the bigger, the better. I use Rubbermaid's 1.3 gallon capacity "Servin' Saver" canisters, because they're deep, so the cukes stay nicely submerged in the brine.
If you do go with jars (they don't have to be "canning"), just make sure the lids seal well and that the undersides aren't reacting with the vinegar over time (actually, if they are, just replace the lids with fresh ones).
When it comes around to the gift-giving phase, you can always transfer portions from the big tubs or jars into pretty little jars.
In 1997, Ball and Kerr stopped making 2-quart mason jars, mainly because the USDA does not provide guidelines for canning with this size jar. But they are still a wonderful size for refrigerator pickles since a single 2-quart jar is a convenient size for refrigerator storage.
So if you encounter 2-quart canning jars at garage sales, or inherit them from a relative or friend, don't overlook their potential in this area.
Cucumber size. Obviously, the smaller the pickling cuke, the crisper the pickle will be. Plus, "baby garlic dills" look so cute and snazzy in their jars. But now that I'm into real high volume refrigerator pickling, I have grown to appreciate the advantages of working with mid- to large-size cukes as well, which is a good thing, because small cukes are much more difficult to find.
I usually cut any cukes larger than 3 inches into rounds or mouth-sized chunks prior to packing them in their containers. When cut, you can pack a lot more cuke into each container, so there's much less wasted space.
Cucumber quality. The fresher the better. If you have access to a U-pick field, lucky you.
If you can track down a supply of cukes that's only been out of the field for 24 hours you're off to a good start, even if you weren't in on the initial picking.
Just nose around the farmers markets to get a line on who's producing pickling cukes. Also, local markets that support local growers typically are stocking pickling cucumbers this time of year.
Refrigeration and humidity are important factors too. Cukes really are sensitive critters. Throw in a little heat or dryness and they deteriorate in quality (texture and flavor mainly). If you must purchase your pickling cukes from a supermarket, do so only if they're firm (no shrivelling at the tips) and you're positive that they've been under constant refrigeration.
Make sure to rub off the blossom end of each cucumber when you're washing them. There's an enzyme lurking at the blossom's base that can lead to softening in the pickle.
Vinegar selection. Of the commercially-prepared varieties, white distilled vinegar imparts the most robust flavor. Cider vinegar has a milder taste, but may discolor your light-colored vegetables, such as onions and cauliflower. However, I consider it the vinegar of choice for my Damn Good Garlic Dills.
Of course, any number of vinegar styles may be used, as long as they are at least 5 percent acidity. Just don't experiment with any of the trendy homemade flavors since it would be difficult to verify that they are 5 percent acidity.
The brine. While we're on the subject of vinegars, I'm going to pass along another great tip: I make up large batches of the brine (see "Jan's Damn Good Garlic Dills" recipe as an example) and store it in the refrigerator so that when I get my hands on a box of great pickling cukes, there's no down time.
I simply pack the cukes into containers, heat up the brine and pour it over the cucumbers.
Salt. Although any food grade salt can be used, pickling/canning salt is recommended. Iodized table salt contains an anti-caking agent which gives a cloudy pickling solution, and iodine, which darkens the vegetables as they pickle.
Read the label of your salt package carefully; I've even encountered "Canning" salt that contains an anti-caking agent, which undermines the reason for using it in the first place.
Recipes. You can turn any "fresh pack" pickle recipe into refrigerator pickles simply by refrigerating them instead of processing them in a boiling water canner. A fresh pack pickle is defined as one that is pickled with vinegar instead of by fermentation.
So that's just about it. Have I inspired you? Pickling season in the Northwest is under way and will hopefully continue through mid- to late- September.
I make up a big batch of brine for my favorite pickle recipe so that when I encounter a good supply of high-quality pickling cukes I can jump right into action.
Store the brine in the fridge -- it will keep indefintely -- in a covered container, then simply re-heat as much of the chilled brine as needed to make a batch of pickles.
Figure on a ratio of two parts pickling cukes to one part brine. So, make up the brine now and keep it in your refrigerator. Then when you've got some pickling cukes to pickle, simply pack them into jars or plastic containers as described below and pour in enough of the pickling brine to cover the cukes.
Screw on the lid and refrigerate or process in a boiling water canner as described below. Store any remaining brine in the refrigerator until you're ready to pickle another batch of cukes.
Make-ahead pickling brine for Jan's Damn Good Garlic Dills
  • 1 quart cider vinegar
  • 1 quart water
  • 1/4 cup pickling spices (see note below)
  • 1/3 cup pickling salt (see note below)
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1 cup chopped fresh dill heads (this is the umbelliferous seed head, which is usually sold in bundles, with each head still attached to its long stalk)
In a large nonaluminum pot, combine the vinegar, water, pickling spices, salt, sugar, turmeric and chopped dill heads. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. If readying a batch for the refrigerator, then let the mixture cool, then strain off the seasonings and dill (be sure and press down on the strainer to extract as much flavor from the ingredients as possible before discarding them).
Pour the brine into non-reactive containers, such as glass canning jars, or food-grade plastic tubs or jugs with tight-fitting lids. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Makes 1/2 gallon of brine (enough for 1 gallon of pickles).
To make the pickles
  • 4 quarts pickling cucumbers rinsed well
  • 4 heads of fresh pickling dill, halved
  • 1/2 teaspoon (about) dried red pepper flakes
  • 16 whole peeled garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 batch of prepared brine
After rinsing the cucumbers and removing any dirt, rub or trim away the blossom end of each cuke (the blossom end is opposite the stem end). If the cucumbers are too large, you may want to cut them into chunks, slices, or sticks. Otherwise, leave them whole. Pack the cucumbers into clean jars or food grade plastic containers, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Divide the sliced pieces of garlic and halved heads of fresh pickling dill among the containers. Add a pinch (about 1/4 of a teaspoon per quart) of the dried red pepper flakes to each container (another pinch of two should be used for those folks who enjoy more of a "bite" in their pickles).
If the brine has been refrigerated, then reheat in a nonaluminum pan.
Ladle or pour the hot brine into the containers. Cover and let cool to room temperature, then store in the refrigerator.
The pickles are "becoming good" after 7 to 10 days of aging, but they won't be "Damn Good" for at least a month. Even then, they will continue to improve and improve, and improve for months and months. I've kept batches for up to 24 months and they've been fabulous down to the last pickle.
Makes 1/2 gallon.
To store your pickles at room temperature: If you really don't have enough refrigerator space and need to store batches in your pantry at room temperature, then you'll have to process the jars in a boiling water canner. Here's how:
Wash pint or quart-size canning jars (such as Ball or Kerr). Keep hot until used. Pack the pickles into the jars, leaving 1/2-inch head space.
Divide the garlic slices among the jars (figure on 4 cloves per quart).
Pour the strained hot brine into 1 jar at a time, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Wipe jar rim with a clean, damp cloth. Place the metal disc of the two-piece lids on top of the jar opening, then screw on the metal screw band. Fill and close remaining jars.
Process the jars, using the LOW TEMPERATURE PASTEURIZATION TREATMENT (this method keeps the pickles from being subjected to boiling water, which will help them stay a little firmer): Place jars in canner filled half way with warm (120 to 140 degrees) water. Then, add hot water to a level 1 inch above jars. Heat the water enough to maintain 180 to 185 degrees water temperature for 30 minutes. Check with a candy or jelly thermometer to be certain that the water temperature is at least 180 degrees during the entire 30 minutes. Temperatures higher than 185 degrees may cause unnecessary softening of pickles.
Note: there is not a processing time for 2-quart jars, so if you are using this size, the jar(s) must be refrigerated.
Make-ahead pickling brine for bread and butter pickles
  • 6 cups cider vinegar
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1 cup fresh dillweed
  • 1 cinnamon stick (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground turmeric
In a large non-aluminum pot, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, dillweed, cinnamon stick (if using), salt, and turmeric. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 5 minutes. If readying a batch for the refrigerator, then let the mixture cool, then strain off the dill and cinnamon stick. Pour the brine into non-reactive containers, such as glass canning jars, or food-grade plastic tubs or jugs with tight-fitting lids. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Makes 1/2 gallon of brine (enough for 1 gallon of pickles).
To make the pickles
  • 4 quarts pickling cucumbers rinsed well, blossom ends rubbed off
  • 2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
  • 2 teaspoons celery seeds
  • 2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
  • 1 batch of prepared brine
Cut the prepared cukes into 1/4-inch thick slices. Pack the cucumbers into clean jars or food grade plastic containers, leaving 1/2-inch head space. Divide the mustard seeds, celery seeds, and pepper flakes among the containers.
If the brine has been refrigerated, then reheat in a nonaluminum pan.
Ladle the hot brine into the containers, leaving 1/4-inch head space.
Attach lids. Let cool to room temperature, then store in the refrigerator.
The pickles need at least 7 to 10 days of aging, but will improve even more as time goes by. Even then, they will continue to improve and improve, and improve for months and months. I've kept batches for up to 24 months and they've been fabulous down to the last pickle.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
Story tags » FoodCooking

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