Although modern refrigeration has eliminated the necessity of “putting up” canned goods, it can’t replace the many rewards of home preserving. Not only is it gratifying, but it can be healthful as well. Homemade pickles are free from the chemicals and preservatives found in many of their commercial equivalents. You can choose the freshest organic ingredients and use only sugar and salt for flavor. With herbs and spices you can create unusual flavor combinations not easily found in stores. And best of all, you can give away your creations as inexpensive but heartfelt gifts.
Quick Homemade Pickles
Technically, any fruit or vegetable preserved in vinegar is considered a pickle. You can “pickle” anything, from apples and peaches to okra and beans. There are several different kinds of pickles, but the most common are either brined or quick processed.
Traditional dilled pickles are brined, which means they are cured or aged in a salty solution that causes fermentation. Although brined pickles are fun to make, they take several weeks and must be monitored closely. For those who lack the time or patience for long recipes, there are fast, easy-to-make “quick pickles,” such as cucumber relish or bread-and-butter pickles. For quick pickles, the fruit or vegetables are usually soaked in a saltwater solution for a few hours, drained, and packed into canning jars. A hot, spicy vinegar solution is poured over them, and the jars are sealed. The longer the pickles sit in the vinegar mixture, the more their flavor increases.
Quick pickles are a very safe method of food preservation. They rely on the highly acidic vinegar to preserve the produce. In fact, they are so safe that some recipes (such as those listed here) can be made as “refrigerator pickles,” in which the finished product is stored in the refrigerator rather than processed in a water bath canner (see “Water Bath Processing” below). The advantage to refrigerator pickles is that you save yourself time. The disadvantage is that the pickles can be stored for only a few weeks under refrigeration, whereas jars processed in a water bath can be stored six months in the pantry. Because the flavor needs one to two weeks to develop, refrigerator storage does not allow much time for you to enjoy the pickle’s full potential.
Water Bath Processing
A hot water bath for processing acid foods such as quick pickles is simply a large stockpot or kettle with a lid. Jars of food are set on top of a wire rack or trivet inside the kettle and covered with enough hot water to completely submerge the jars, plus two inches. They are then boiled for the time specified in the recipe and removed to cool. During the heating process, the contents of the jar expand to force out some air. As the jars cool, the remaining air contracts to form a vacuum that preserves the contents. The heating process also helps kill any microorganisms that may be present inside the jar. The finished jars can be stored on the pantry shelf for up to six months.
To process quick pickles in this way, you need a stockpot or kettle that is at least four inches taller than the jars you are using. This allows one to two inches of water above the tops of the jars with a two-inch space for boiling. You can purchase specialized canning pots with fitted racks at gourmet or cooking supply stores, but a tall stockpot and a round, wire cookie rack or trivet work just as well. Gourmet stores also carry handy jar lifters with rubber grips to prevent slippage when lifting out jars. Long tongs are an acceptable alternative.
To process finished pickles, fill your canner three-quarters full with hot water. Place jars on a wire rack or trivet in the canner so they are not touching each other. Cover the jars with more hot water until they are submerged one or two inches. Bring the water to an easy boil and cover the kettle. Start counting your processing time after the water comes to a boil. As soon as the processing time is over, remove the jars from the canner and place them on a wooden board or towel to cool. After cooling, a jar is sealed if you can press the center of the lid and it does not spring back. Any unsealed jars must be stored in the refrigerator and used within the time specified in the recipe.
Altitudes above 1,000 feet require longer processing time. Use the chart below to adjust recipes for your needs.
|1,001 – 3,000||5 minutes|
|3,001 – 6,000||10 minutes|
|6,001 – 8,000||15 minutes|
|8,001 – 10,00||20 minutes|
• For the best cucumber pickles, select fresh, unwaxed, firm cucumbers. Use a pickling variety rather than the typical salad cucumber. Pickling cucumbers can be found in your grocery or farmers market, or you can grow your own. The fresher the produce, the crisper the pickle. If the cucumbers are not used immediately after harvesting, they must be stored in the refrigerator and used as soon as possible.
• Wash cucumbers well in cool water to remove all dirt, which may contain a type of bacteria responsible for softening pickles. The recipe will then call for the removal of the “blossom end” of each cucumber. Simply slice 1/4 inch off the end opposite the stem end. The blossoms contain enzymes that can also cause pickle softening.
• For a clear pickling solution, use pure pickling salt that does not contain iodine or anti-caking agents. If you can’t find pickling salt in the grocery, use Kosher salt. Although cider or wine vinegar may be used in pickling, only white distilled vinegar is used in these recipes because it does not discolor the produce. The acidity of homemade vinegar can vary, so, for safety, use only a commercial vinegar of 5 percent acidity or greater.
• Some old recipes call for firming agents such as lime or alum. These are unnecessary if you use quality ingredients and follow up-to-date canning methods.
• Pickling liquids should be heated in stainless steel, aluminum, glass, or unchipped enamelware pans. Do not use copper, brass, galvanized, or iron utensils because they may react with the acid in the mixture and cause color changes in your pickles.
• If you’re processing jars in a water bath, use only jars specifically made for canning to assure a proper seal. They should have a two-piece canning lid (ring and top). These are readily available in grocery and hardware stores or on the Internet.
• Jars that are to be processed in a water bath for ten minutes or longer should be washed in hot soapy water and rinsed before using. Jars that are used in recipes requiring less than ten minutes processing must be boiled for ten minutes before using.