It’s been a good year for cucumbers. I planted six plants in a raised bed earlier this spring and for the past three weeks I’ve been picking anywhere from 10-20 pounds of the juicy, delicious cucurbits every other day. In spite of the fact that I’ve been eating them literally with three meals a day (sliced on toast with cream cheese for breakfast, layered on a ham sandwich for lunch, and in cucumber salads with dinner) and giving them to any friends who would take them, I never seem to be able to use them all up. I decided it was time to make my first batch of pickles, and they turned out so well that now I’m wondering if I need to plant more cucumbers to keep up with demand.
I’ve also put up some smaller jars of pickled green beans, cauliflower, beets and jalapenos. They liven up a cheese board and make for a gorgeous bloody mary bar. Colorful jars of homemade pickles also make lovely holiday gifts, especially when tucked in a basket alongside some wine or charcuterie.
I did not come from a family of canners. Someone would usually put up a couple of jars of chili sauce and apple butter each year, but most of my food preservation memories are of packaging-up veggies and tomatoes for the freezer rather than processing them. I’ve only recently started canning more of my garden’s excesses, with most of my information coming from books and Google. Once you get the process down it becomes pretty straightforward and can be an immensely satisfying way to spend your time.
Processing is the term traditionally used when jars are filled with food and heated to a high temperature for a prescribed amount of time. Heating foods to boiling kills all the microorganisms present, but some bacteria such as Clostridium botulinum can form spores that will withstand very high temperatures. These spores develop into bacteria in an airtight environment and produce a toxin causing botulism. These bacteria won’t grow in an acidic environment, so canning procedures are different when processing low-acid foods versus high-acid foods. High-acid foods are acidic enough to prevent the growth of any spores that would survive water bath processing. Low-acid foods, such as many vegetables as well as meats, must be processed using a pressure canner that heats to a sufficiently high temperature to kill the spores.
Processing high-acid foods like pickles is relatively straightforward and easy to do safely if you follow a few key points:
• You don’t need a special canning pot, but you do need a pot large enough to cover your jars by 1 to 2 inches of water.
• Jars should be freshly washed and hot. Jars for recipes calling for at least 10 minutes of processing in the water bath don’t need to be sterilized prior to filling, but they do need to be hot to avoid cracking when hot product is added to the jar.
• Inspect jars for cracks before filling and always use new lids (jars and bands can be reused).
• Be careful when altering recipes for canning. Specific concentrations of sugar, salt and acid act to safely preserve the product, and scaling recipes up or down or attempting to reduce sugar content can make it unsafe to for long-term storage.
• Canning jar manufactures like Ball and Kerr have excellent resources available both in book form and on their websites. The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving is an extremely useful reference with a wide range of both savory and sweet classic recipes. Another favorite text is Preservation Kitchen by Chef Paul Virant, the first canning cookbook and manual written by a Michelin-starred chef. Chef Virant’s book includes useful basic information and recipes as well as more sophisticated preparations, including fermented foods and recipes like smoked and pickled spring onions, lemon pickled turnips and vanilla melon jam.
NANA’S BREAD AND BUTTER CUCUMBER PICKLES
These old-fashioned pickles are wickedly good on pulled pork sandwiches or simply served alongside grilled or roasted meats. Add some pickles and the brine to fresh sliced cucumbers and herbs for a quick and easy cucumber salad.
16 cups sliced cucumbers
3 large sweet onions, sliced
1/3 cup granulated pickling salt
5 cups crushed ice
2 ½ cups cider vinegar
2 ½ cups sugar
2 tablespoons pickling spice
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons ground mustard seeds
Ball pickle crisp granules (calcium citrate), optional, but makes for crisper pickles
Wash the cucumbers well, and slice off about ½ inch of the blossom end of the cucumber and discard. Enzymes from the blossom can turn your pickles soft and unpalatable. Slice the cucumbers and peel and slice the onion. Combine the onions and cucumbers with the salt and crushed ice in a large bowl and mix well. Place weight (a dinner plate topped with a gallon water jug works well) on top of the sliced cucumbers and onions and allow to sit on the counter for 3 hours.
Meanwhile, combine the vinegar, sugar and pickling spice to a non-reactive saucepan. Bring to a boil to dissolve the sugar then turn off the heat and let the spices steep.
Rinse and drain the cucumbers and onions. Pack them tightly into sterilized jars, leaving about an inch of headspace. Add a heaping 1/8th of a teaspoon of the pickle crisp granules, if using, and a ½ teaspoon of mustard seeds to each jar. Strain the vinegar mixture to remove the pickling spices, return it to the pot, and bring to a boil. Pour the hot-spiced vinegar mixture over the sliced cucumbers in the jars, leaving ½ inch of headspace from the rim of the jar.
Process in boiling water for 10 minutes. Remove the jars from the water bath onto a towel and let the rest on the counter. Over the next 24 hours the jar lids should pop, indicating a good seal.
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