Pickle-packing anxiety is unwarranted

  • Tuesday, August 24, 2004 9:00pm
  • Life

If you thought that making fabulous pickles was a frightening and near-impossible feat, you can just put that out of your head right this minute.

Not the kind of pickles I make. The pickles that I make, “fresh pack pickles,” are made with vinegar. And it’s the vinegar that does all the work while you take all the credit

And did I mention how fabulous they are? I don’t know if it’s the fact that you go from neutral veggie to potent condiment without breaking a sweat. Or that homemade pickles, when appreciated by the right people (your sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, and very special neighbors) 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 – making a pickle is an amazing and simple thing.

But first things first. By saying that vinegar does all the work, I mean that the vinegar is more than just a flavoring. It’s actually the preservative, keeping the growth of harmful bacteria in check during storage.

In the other kind of pickling, which is referred to as “fermentation style pickling” the tang you taste is internally created, thanks to a carefully choreographed ballet requiring careful monitoring of temperature, salt, water and sanitation.

So for now, fresh pack pickling it is. There are just a few things to keep in mind, such as:

* If you want the brine to remain relatively clear, then you need to use “pickling salt.” You’ll find it in boxes, right alongside other salt products, or over in the canning section of most supermarkets or department stores where canning supplies are sold.

Pickling salt is different from regular table salt because it doesn’t contain anti-caking agents or iodine, which can lead to a cloudy brine and sometimes even an off flavor.

* Vinegar is the key preservative, and for safety’s sake, if you’re going to seal the jar of pickles in a boiling water canner and store them at room temperature, then the recipe should contain at least as much vinegar as water (or other low-acid liquid).

Also, whichever vinegar you’re using, make sure it is at least 5 percent acidity (commercial brands state the percentage right on the label). This means you can’t use homemade vinegars, since the acidity is unknown.

* Although just about any vegetable can be pickled, cucumbers are the most traditional.

Within the cucumber family, only work with “pickling cucumbers” or “pickling cukes” as they’re likely to be labeled at the farmers market. They’re a much denser and less seedy cucumber than your standard salad cucumber.

Also, it’s important to use fresh-from-the-field pickling cukes, because that’s your best insurance for maintaining good color, texture and flavor during storage of your precious cache of pickles.

Realistically, my definition of “fresh-from-the-field” can be stretched to encompass any cuke that’s been harvested within 24 to 48 hours, as long as they’ve been refrigerated in a humid environment to guard against dehydration.

* As the cukes are packed into canning jars and the pickling liquid added, pay close attention to head space, the unfilled space above the food and below the lip of the jar.

For pickled products, as well as relishes and tomatoes, 1/2-inch head space is just enough to allow for expansion of the food as jars are processed (if there isn’t enough head space, the liquid inside the jar may bubble over and prevent a good seal); too much head space and air won’t vent properly during processing, which would undermine the forming of a vacuum inside the jar.

* After filling the jars with the cucumbers and vinegar solution, try to release as many air bubbles as possible by gently inserting a flat plastic spatula between the food and the jar.

Slowly turn the jar and move the spatula up and down to allow air bubbles to escape. This doesn’t have to be a vigorous process since a minimal amount of jiggling tickles most bubbles away from the sides of the jar and vegetables.

* n n

I run this recipe every year for two reasons: It’s my favorite, and I get so many requests for it. It’s the ultimate “refrigerator dill,” full of zesty flavor and firm, crisp texture.

Even though I don’t have a lot of refrigerator space to devote to pickles, I always manage to make enough of these to share with family and very (very!) special friends.

This particular recipe is an adaptation of Portland chef and restaurateur Greg Higgins’ Damn Good Dills.

I’ve omitted the chipotle chilies, added a few more traditional seasonings, and goosed the garlic level. Feel free to play around with your own seasonings.

Jan’s damn good garlic dills

4quarts pickling cucumbers rinsed well

4heads of fresh pickling dill, halved

About 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1quart cider vinegar

1quart water

1/4cup pickling spices

1/3cup pickling salt

2tablespoons sugar

1/2teaspoon ground turmeric

1cup chopped fresh pickling dill

16whole peeled garlic cloves, sliced

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).

Prepare the brine by combining the vinegar, water, pickling spices, salt, sugar, turmeric and 1 cup of chopped fresh dill in a nonaluminum pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Strain off the seasonings from the brine then 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. (You can prepare large batches of the brine and store in the refrigerator until ready to use; reheat before using.)

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.

If you really don’t have enough refrigerator space and need to store batches at room temperature, then you’ll have to process the jars in a 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. 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 (120-140 degree) water. Then, add hot water to a level 1 inch above jars. Heat the water enough to maintain 180-185 degree 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.

Makes about 4 quarts.

Note: There is not a processing time for 2-quart jars, so if you are using this size, the jar(s) must be refrigerated.

Bread-and-butter pickles have gone upscale, it seems. At a benefit for Citymeals-on-Wheels at Rockefeller Center in New York City, Alice Waters, chef and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, served bread-and-butter pickles with smoked salmon and watercress on toasted walnut bread.

(Afterward, though, she said she regretted not choosing miniature hamburgers instead of the salmon to go with the pickles.)

These bread-and-butters are a little less sweet than most; you can increase the sugar, if you like. Some people also add a little ground cloves, and you might try some diced red pepper in place of some of the onions.

Old-fashioned bread-and-butters

6pounds 4- to 5-inch pickling cucumbers

2pounds small onions, sliced into thin rounds

1/2cup pickling salt

41/2cups cider vinegar

3cups sugar

1 1/2teaspoons ground turmeric

1teaspoon celery seeds

2teaspoons yellow mustard seeds

Gently wash the cucumbers, and remove the blossom ends. Slice the cucumbers crosswise 3/16 inch thick. In a large bowl, toss the cucumbers and onions with the salt. Cover the vegetables with ice cubes from 2 ice trays. Let the vegetables stand 3 to 4 hours.

Drain the vegetables. In a large nonreactive pot, bring the remaining ingredients to a boil. Add the vegetables, and slowly bring the contents to a boil. Using a slotted spoon, pack the vegetables loosely in 8 pint or 4 quart mason (canning) jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Divide the liquid evenly among the jars. Close the jars with hot two-piece caps.

To ensure a good seal, process the jars for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath.

Store the cooled jars in a cool, dry, dark place for at least 3 weeks before eating the pickles.

Makes about 4 quarts.

These are the divine little pickles that charcuteries, French cafes and bistros serve alongside pate, sliced meats and salads. If you’re unable to find small pickling cukes, then tuck this recipe away for next year – or simply cut larger pickling cukes into chunks (they won’t actually be “cornichons,” but they’ll be tasty in their own right).


3pounds tiny pickling cucumbers, 1 to 1 1/2 inches in length

6small sprigs fresh tarragon

6small sprigs fresh marjoram or oregano

5teaspoons juniper berries (or if unavailable, mustard seeds)

3teaspoons whole green peppercorns

41/2cups red or white wine vinegar or champagne vinegar (5 percent acidity)

13/4cups water

1 1/2teaspoons salt

1 1/2teaspoons sugar

Using a stiff vegetable brush under running water, scrub off the tiny thorns on the cucumbers. Set aside cucumbers to drain.

If you’re going to refrigerate the pickles instead of storing them at room temperature, then select clean containers large enough to hold 3 quarts of pickling cukes and the brine. In the bottom of the container(s), lay the following ingredients: 6 tarragon sprigs, 6 marjoram or oregano sprigs, 5 teaspoons juniper berries (or mustard seed), and 3 teaspoons green peppercorns. Now tightly pack in the tiny cucumbers, vertically. When you think you can’t get in even one extra cucumber, keep pushing in more.

Combine the vinegar, water, salt, and sugar in a nonaluminum pot. Bring mixture to a boil. Pour the hot brine into the container(s) leaving 1/2-inch head space. Attach lid and refrigerate.

For storage at room temperature, you will need to pack the cucumbers into clean canning jars (with two-pieced metal canning lids that have been heated in boiling water according to manufacturer’s directions) and process in a canner using low-temperature pasteurization treatment: Wash 3 quart-size (or 6 pint-size) canning jars. Divide the above ingredients evenly among the jars and proceed as directed. When filled with pickling cukes (leaving 1/2-inch head space) and the hot brine (leaving 1/2-inch head space), attach the lids and place the 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 180-185 degree water temperature for 30 minutes (for altitudes from 1,001 to 3,000 feet, add 5 minutes to the processing time; from 3,001 to 6,000 feet, add 10 minutes; above 6,001 feet, add 15 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.

Makes about 3 quarts.

Adapted from “The Art Of Accompaniment” by Jeffree Sapp Brooks.

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