Monday, September 4, 2017

Pickle It Yourself

I think I killed my taste for cucumbers this summer. Its hard to believe that I could harvest so many cucumbers in one season. Actually, I brought this upon myself.  On a road trip to the Fiestaware factory outlet in WV with my adorable friend Marie, we stopped at Janoski's local farm stand and I found a whole bunch of very nice looking plants. The problem was that they came in four-packs priced at only $2 each. How could I resist? I bought a four pack of cucumber plants and put all of them in the ground, thinking only two would thrive and produce. Boy was I wrong.  We returned from a week-long trip right after July 4th and found about a dozen enormous cucumbers hanging from the plants and probably 20 more small ones that would be ready to harvest just a few weeks later. I have been harvesting cucumbers for two solid months and they are beginning to get on my nerves. I brought a bunch of them to work, but it barely made a dent in my harvest. I mean, seriously, how many cukes can two people eat? There's only one thing to do with too many cucumbers. Make pickles, of course!

To some folks, the idea of making pickles is daunting.  Questions abound. How does a brine work? Do I have to ferment them for a long time? How do I keep them crisp? How do I keep them from going bad in the pantry? What kind of vinegar should I use? I was talking to my 93 year old dad about how his mother made pickles. He described a crock that sat on the kitchen counter for months and the time-intensive process she went through to ferment her own pickles the old fashioned way. Not all pickles are created equally - there are hundreds of types of pickles and they are enjoyed by many cultures around the world.  Pickling was a main form of food preservation long before the invention of modern refrigeration. Sauerkraut is really just pickled and fermented cabbage. In Japanese cuisine, pickled ginger is quite popular. On the Indian table, you will find mango pickle. There are pickled eggs, pickled beets, pickled pigs feet and even pickled herring. You can pickle just about anything.

Picklesburgh features a giant inflatable pickle.
Of course, the technique, preparation and ingredients for a great pickle are different depending on your tastes. Pittsburgh is the hometown of H.J. Heinz and people here are proud of the important role pickles have played in the city's history. In July, we have wonderful festival called Picklesburgh that takes place on one of our stunning bridges and all things pickled are celebrated and on display. I go every year, but given the annoying abundance of cukes in my kitchen, I was there for inspiration this year.  For my first batch of the season, I decided to go with one of my favorites, the sharp sweetness of the bread & butter pickle.

After making a few batches of pickles, you get a feel for the proportions of the ingredients. I started by following a recipe for the brine, but I had a lot of cucumbers to deal with and I didn't want to have any left over.  You need enough brine so that each jar is filled to the rim, so you might need to adjust the amount of vinegar and sugar to ensure that you have enough brine. Too much is better than not enough.


15 cups of sliced cucumbers (12-15 medium large cukes)
1 thinly sliced yellow onion
1/4 cup kosher salt
2 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
2 cups sugar
1 tsp tumeric
1 tsp mustard seed
1/2 tsp celery seed
1 tbsp pickling spice (optional)
1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

My husband makes a pickle recipe that was handed down from his grandmother. They are affectionately known as "MomMom pickles" and they almost treated as currency in his family. This recipe is made with sliced zucchini and the brine is more sweet than tart. MomMom's secret to keeping her pickles crunchy is to salt them and let them sit for a long time so the excess moisture is drawn out of the zucchini, which firms them up so they don't go soft in the brine. MomMom is a farm cook and everything she learned about food and cooking was passed down to her by generations of farm cooks. In my opinion, that is the kind of kitchen wisdom you can't get from a book. So, if it works for MomMom, its gotta work for me. I used a crinkle cutter and sliced my cucumbers into thick, crinkled slices and I also sliced the onion very thinly. I put it all in a colander and tossed it with the kosher salt, then covered the top with ice and set the colander in the sink. Its important to keep the cucumbers cold while the salt does its work. Three hours later, there was a generous pool of light green liquid in the sink and the cucumbers had a slightly firmer texture.  They were ready to rock.

In order to dissolve the sugar and allow the spices to release their flavor, the brine needs to be simmered. I put all the brine ingredients into a big pot and brought it to a simmer over medium heat. Once the brine was simmering, I rinsed my cukes and put them in the pot with the brine to cook for just a moment. This step is omitted from some recipes, but I find that the brine penetrates a little better if the pickles are simmered in it for just a few minutes.  If you are using something more firm, like green beans or cauliflower, its a good idea to simmer them in the brine so they soften slightly before they are jarred.

The pickles should be packed tightly into jars and the best way to do this is with tongs. Lift the pickles out of the hot brine and put them in the jars making sure to press them down so you can get as many in there as possible. Once your jars are filled with pickles, ladle the brine over them so it covers the cucumbers. You can keep the jars in the fridge or you can seal them using the traditional canning method and they'll be good in your pantry for about six months, although mine don't make it that long. I made seven jars of bread & butter pickles and for my second batch, I made sour pickles with dill seed from my garden. I'm hoping they'll make it to Thanksgiving, but they are in high demand. Pickling is really not difficult and once you learn the technique, you can pickle whatever you have on hand. Don't be shy, give it a try!

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