I'd like to introduce you to my friend and fellow gardener Laura Mathews. She's a garden writer and photographer who contributes to several websites including Punk Rock Gardens. She's also the Northeast Garden Guru for Proven Winners. Laura attended our annual blogger event at the farm, Garden2Blog, in 2011.
While scouring the virtual garden for harvesting and preserving tips I discovered that Laura knew quite a bit on pickling. I asked her to share her knowledge, which she very graciously did. Plus a recipe for bread and butter pickles you can freeze. I can't wait to try them.
At times in the growing season, the bounty from our vegetable gardens can be a bit overwhelming. Many of our backyard vegetable garden favorites mature within weeks of each other. One way out to this annual pickle… is to pickle.
Pickling may seem like a frightening black art practiced only by women of the past with extraordinary quantities of technical kitchen skill, but it’s actually much less complex than say, maintaining a quality compost pile. With attention to a couple important things, pickling is easy. It also generates a lot of value. Pickling turns inexpensive homegrown vegetables into crunchy, tangy delights that cost far less than they would at the grocery.
The first thing to grasp is that pickling via canning is that it’s not cooking. You cannot safely fiddle with the recipes. Follow modern recipes to the letter. Make sure your source for the recipe is reputable. Consider as well, employing safer methods of pickling. Grandma’s recipe for refrigerator pickles – that may include letting the pickles stand at room temperature for hours – aren’t considered safe by the USDA. The trendy practice of pickling by fermentation is also best left for those with deep understanding of food safety. Canning your pickles or making easy freezer pickles is the safest way to start.
Next, your pickles will only be as good as the vegetables you use. Find or pick very fresh young cucumbers for pickles. The fresher the cuke, the more natural pectin it contains. This pectin will keep your pickles crisp. Some recipes call for products like pickle crisp or suggest ice baths to preserve the crunch. Make sure to cut off the blossom end of the cucumber because it contains enzymes that will soften the cucumber. If you’re purchasing cucumbers, don’t buy any that have been waxed. The wax will interfere with the pickling processes.
Vinegar is key to pickling. Acidity in the vinegar is what keeps microorganisms from spoiling food. Be sure to check your vinegar labels for acidity percentage. Recipes are tested using vinegar with 5 percent acidity. Don’t skimp on the salt or substitute table salt for canning salt. Additives in table salt will cause cloudy brine. Stay away from Kosher salt unless the recipe specifically calls for it. Kosher salt is measured differently and can cause your pickles to be too salty.
For canned pickles, look for fresh pack recipes. You’ll need sterile jars and a pot large enough to boil several jars at once. A rack or good tongs will be needed to take the hot jars from the canning bath. The steps are easy. The recipe will dictate how to slice the cucumbers. Add the spices and the slices to jars. Cover the vegetables with the hot pickling solution which is mostly comprised of specific proportions of water, vinegar and salt. Seal with hot canning lids and cook for a bit in a boiling water bath. Cooking times for pickles are less than other forms of vegetable canning. After the jars cool, flavors will develop in a matter of weeks and you’ve made your own pickles.
If you want a no heat and no worries place to start, try freezer pickles. This is also fun to do with children. This recipe comes from Martha Zepp, Lancaster County Food Preservation Consultant with Penn State Cooperative Extension.
Martha’s Freezer Bread and Butter Pickles
7 cups thinly sliced cucumbers
1 cup chopped onion
2 tablespoons canning salt
Layer cucumbers, onion, and salt in a glass bowl or non-metallic bowl. Weight down and cover. Do not add water. Let stand overnight in refrigerator.
2 cups sugar
1 cup white vinegar
1 teaspoon celery seed (this can be adjusted for taste. Try adding some mustard seed.)
Next morning, combine, but do not cook, 2 cups sugar, 1 cup white vinegar, and 1 teaspoon celery seed, Zepp says. Stir until very smooth and sugar is dissolved. Drain sliced cucumbers and rinse well. Return to bowl, add syrup and refrigerate an additional 24 hours. Place into freezer containers leaving 1/2 inch headspace and freeze.
Pickling is simply an artful mix of vegetable, acid, spices, sugar and salt. Don’t limit your pickling to cucumbers. Dilly beans are a personal favorite. Adding a little vinegar, some spices and salt to vegetables is really all that’s required to preserve your garden veggies while adding flavor and interest.