My garden — more correctly, my husband's garden — was overflowing with cucumbers. Lots of tomatoes and peppers, too, along with lesser amounts of carrots, eggplant, Egyptian spinach, zucchini and the list goes on.
We tried everything to use up the cucumbers: Cucumber and avocado salad, cucumbers with couscous, cucumbers in adult beverages, and we made gallons and gallons of cucumber water. We gave some away to friends. Even then, so ... many ... cucumbers. We knew what we should do with them but were just too afraid to try: Make pickles.
There are easy ways to make pickles. Our friend Daniel Neman has a video on how to make Quickles (quick pickles). But those last in the refrigerator just a few weeks. We had a bigger cucumber problem on our hands. We needed to venture into the world of canning. None of my family or close friends can. Left to my own devices, I started with the internet. As is often the case there, I found conflicting reports on how to can. But after reading enough stories from reputable sources, I finally felt confident that I knew how to do it.
Kaitie Adams, a full-time farmer and educator at Earthdance Organic Farm School, said pickling is nothing to be afraid of.
“It is a lot easier than people think it is. And it allows you to eat really good food you made, to connect to your food system. ... It's the best way to enjoy seasonable produce year-round. Canning basically is to stop food from decomposing, so you create this environment devoid of oxygen and harmful bacteria, locking in the nutrition,” she said.
Most people start with cucumbers and tomatoes, she said, because they can be found in abundance this time of year. But those can be like a super-healthful gateway drug.
“Once you get the basics in, you can pickle just about anything; there's a funny ‘Portlandia’ skit about it.”
Oh, I've seen it. And while I'm not there yet, I do have a dozen or so jars of pickles in my cupboard, several more in my refrigerator and even more pickles in my belly. Bread and butter, spears, whole, chips, spicy, mustardy. If you are afraid, as I was, here's a simple how-to on canning pickles, with advice from Adams and me. I've also included a recipe for Bread and Butter Pickles. Those are done a little differently from the way explained in the following directions but are a favorite in my house.
1. Buy the right equipment.
A few things are absolutes: You must have jars and lids (you may reuse the jars and rings, but you'll need to replace the actual lid each time so it seals properly). Almost as important are the canning tongs. Not just any tongs will do. I bought some in a kit with a bunch of other gadgets for $9.99 from Farm & Home Supply in Cottleville. They are a canner's dream. The kit also came with a spatula-like tool for getting the air out, a lid tightener (good if you aren't very strong), and a jar lifter and a funnel that I have never used. I'd also recommend springing for the pickling and canning salt ($2.99 for 3 pounds) and pickling vinegar ($2.99 for 5 quarts). I've found apple cider vinegar and distilled white vinegar also work well. Lastly, you need a big pot to cook them in. I just use my stock pot, which fits four quart-size jars, but they make bigger pots that fit many more. A canning rack is also a great investment, as your jars need to be off the bottom of the pot. But you can make one yourself by tying canning rings together with cooking twine.
2. Sanitize the jars.
Start by placing your jars (no lids) in a stock pot. Fill the pot (and jars) with water, to about an inch over the jars. Boil for about 10 minutes. Use your tongs to remove the jars to a wood cutting board or to a work surface covered by towels. I've read differing reports on what to do with the lids. The easiest and most reasonable seems to be to rinse them under hot tap water for a bit.
3. Make the brine.
A general rule seems to be 2/3 vinegar to 1/3 water plus salt. I use 2 cups of vinegar, 1 cup of water and 2 tablespoons salt, brought to a boil. Canning salt is best, and kosher salt is good, but never use iodized salt. If I'm making bread and butter or sweet pickles, I'll add as much as 2 cups of sugar (see recipe).
4. Get creative with the jars.
Now comes the fun part. My 11-year-old son likes to help here. We line up a bunch of ingredients and let his imagination run wild. Add any (but probably not all!) of these ingredients to the empty jars: dill, thyme, oregano, rosemary, turmeric, mustard seeds, jalapeno, onion, black peppercorn, garlic, coriander seeds, fresh ginger (peeled and sliced) or red pepper flakes. Then fill the jars as much as you can with cucumber, either whole, sliced into chips or quartered into spears. Next, pour the brine to within about a half-inch of the rim. Use a spatula or one of those special tools to get the air bubbles out, running it along the sides of the jar. Adams also says a chopstick will do the job. Now, put the lids back on. Seal them tight, but there's no need to He-Man that thing.
5. Cook them, store them.
Put the sealed jars back in the stock pot of water, turn it on so it comes to a low boil and cook, about 10 minutes for pint-size jars and 15 for quart-size jars. But if your recipe says different, follow that. Use those special tongs to remove the jars to a safe surface (I use a wood cutting board). Let them sit for 24 hours. Then test the seal to make sure they are secure. Press the middle of the lid with your finger, and if the lid springs up when you release your finger, the lid is unsealed. I also like to remove the ring and gently see if I can pry the lid off. If I cannot, it is sealed, and into the cupboard it goes, where jars can be stored for a year. No worries if the seal is broken, just put it in the fridge and use within three weeks.
Note that water bath canning is perfect for high-acid foods and jams and jellies, but a pressure canner should be used for lower-acid foods such as beans, beets, meats and other naturally low-acid foods.
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