Adventures in Pickling


Cucumbers never grew well in the garden at my old home. But this year we broke ground for a garden in the backyard, unearthing flood plain soil that hadn't been cultivated in decades. Add my homemade compost and a sturdy trellis, and here comes an amazing crop of foot-long cucumbers!

My family loves cucumbers, but we couldn't eat -or even give away- this many. I brought a five-gallon bucket of cukes inside to make pickles. I considered buying pickling salt and spices individually to make my own brine, but thought I might be stuck with leftovers that wouldn't be used for anything else, and instead purchased a packet of dill pickling spices, good for one batch of pickles, and a jug of vinegar.

There are two basic methods for making pickles, with many variations on each. One is to ferment the pickles in salt brine for weeks, then seal in jars. You have to make sure the cukes stay under the brine, and you usually have to add vinegar later anyway. The other method is to use vinegar brine to can fresh cucumbers, which still contains a lot of salt, but it doesn't require a huge container and weeks of protecting the project from insects and curious children. After my first garden produced a few cucumbers in 1995, I made a small batch of pickles, and my favorite aunt gave me a huge crock for future pickling. The cucumbers didn't appear in later years, and we used the crock for an umbrella stand until I finally sold it. So my pickles are fresh-packed in a salt/vinegar/spice brine.

Should I pack pickles in thin slices or spears? With the recipe I used, it doesn't matter, as you pack the jars first with fresh cucumber, then fill each with brine. That gave me the opportunity to do both, so some jars were filled with spears while I made hamburger chips in others. Two types of slicing machines gave me chips that were way too thin, so I ended up cutting slices the old fashioned way.

While I was at it, a sliced up a few jars of banana peppers, since my family likes the pickled peppers that the local pizza parlor uses. I figured a nice dill brine would work for them as well.

As I began to slice up pickles and fill jars, I realized that I had been calculating the volume of my project all wrong. Experience tells me a five-gallon bucket of tomatoes will produce one soup pot of stewed tomatoes or salsa, and even less tomato sauce or juice, once the skins, seeds, and most of the water was removed from the fruit. But you don't remove anything from cucumbers, except a small slice off the blossom end (that part can be bitter). Time to wash more jars!

When I mixed up the packet of brine, it became clear that the manufacturer's idea of a "batch" of pickles was different from mine. I would need at least three more packets of spices. The grocery store only had one left, so I switched gears and bought a jar of pickling spices, equivalent to about six packets. It would not be the last jar of spices I bought. Yes, I should have invested in each spice individually, even though I would have had to hit every grocery store in town to get enough fresh dill at once. Hindsight is 20/20.

I brought two pots of brine to a boil, then filled the jars with brine. We were able to stretch the brine a bit by stuffing yet more cucumber pieces in the jars after the hot liquid softened them a little. Then I went around the top of the jars with a clean wet cloth, to make sure no stray dill seeds would interfere with the lids. The lids had been heated under a cover of boiling water, and then were placed on the jars with rings. The rings were put on just tight enough to keep the lid from falling off. The air from inside the jar must be able to vent to produce a proper seal.

The new large canner holds fourteen pints or ten quart jars. To accommodate one bucket of cucumbers, I had to use both sizes, which meant boiling many kettles of water to make sure all the jars were covered adequately. To keep jars under water during the canning process, you should have at least two inches of water over the tallest jar. The process of getting that much water to boil (we used every stove burner) took longer than any other part of the process.

Twenty minutes of constant boiling later, I removed the hot jars. The cooling jars from three canner loads took up all the counter space, which gave me the perfect excuse to order takeout for dinner. That one move probably wiped out my savings in pickles for the year.

But in this day and time, you don't can your own garden produce just to save money. The food itself is high quality from a lovingly-produced family garden, instead of a commercial farm thousands of miles away. You also have the satisfaction of knowing you were responsible for the end product. And while a jar of store-bought pickles would be too weird to give as a gift, home-canned pickles are a perfectly thoughtful gift.

Are the pickles any good? I don't know! Since they are fresh packed, the brine spices won't fully penetrate the fruit for a few weeks. The recipe recommended waiting a month before eating them. We had two jars with lids that failed to seal, so they went into the refrigerator as the first ones to be eaten. We are trying to wait the proper amount of time before we pass judgement.

I've gone through this process several times in the last few weeks. Believe me, many of these jars will be given away. We eat a lot of pickles, but there's no way we can consume this many in a year. Properly preserved pickles are supposed to last several years, but tend to taste best in the first year. And we will have another garden next summer!
Photographs by Princess Cellania.

See also: A Dozen Pumpkins, Salsa Time! and Growing Tomatoes.