Pickling primer: Take a deeper dive into preserving ripe produce
Pickling can happen any time there are ripe veggies for the picking. Today we sit squarely in the cucumber times, which last all summer long. Beans are upon us, too. Soon it will be time for pickling small batches of garlic for use in Thai cooking. And then will come the pickled peppers, large batches in large jars, sometimes with carrots.
Generally speaking there are two kinds of pickle: the fermented kind, aka sour pickle, and the pickled-in-vinegar kind, which is more common and goes by many names. Although I love to eat the fermented veggies of others, I’m currently a straight vinegar-pickler at home. It’s a versatile way to go that can accommodate anything you could want to eat pickled, from cauliflower to beans to peppers and carrots, and even the asparagus that’s already come and gone.
In addition to the vinegar that makes up about half the brine, this style of pickle generally uses sugar and salt as well, all of which help curb bacterial growth.
For reasons of space, food safety and liability, this is not the place to give a complete set of instructions on how to pickle. My recipe assumes a basic knowledge of canning technique and certain pieces of equipment. For Cliff Notes versions of the canning process, consult the box of lids and rings that come with canning jars. And for specific recipes that have been tested for safety by scientists that work for the company that makes basically all the canning jars used in the U.S., consult www.freshpreserving.com.
Here is an all-purpose recipe that I use as a default.
Use Kirby-style, aka pickling, cucumbers, the kind that have little spikes on them. They can withstand higher temperatures without getting soggy. They should be small — no more than five inches long and an inch or so wide — and fresh. I like to hit the farmers market early in the day and load up.
Pack the washed cucumbers into clean, sterile quart jars, leaving an inch of head space at the top. The quantity of brine you need will depend on what you packed the jars with, and how tightly. To get a sense of the quantity you need, fill one packed jar with water, then measure that amount of water. Multiply that amount by the number of packed jars.
The brine is half water and half vinegar, with the vinegar part being half cider vinegar and half white wine vinegar.
Heat to boiling, adding sugar a little at a time until it doesn’t quite taste sweet but takes the edge off the vinegar, about a tablespoon per quart.
While the brine heats, add a tablespoon of mustard seeds to each jar, and a tablespoon of salt. Since mustard seeds come in both yellow and brown colors, I mix them first before doling them out.
When the brine comes to a boil, pour it into the jars so it covers the veggies and still leaves a half-inch of head space.
Process in a water bath for the appropriate time based on the vegetable being pickled; with cucumbers that would be 20 minutes.
Wise to the words
• Boiling-water canner or water bath canner: A big aluminum or steel pot with a rack inside to hold canning jars. Many have a somewhat curved bottom, making them ideal for use on gas stoves but trickier on flat-topped ones.
• Water bath: The method of boiling jarred vegetables, vinegars or fruits to kill bacteria and help preserve them in air-tight containers without refrigeration. In a water bath, jars are covered by 1 to 2 inches of boiling water in a canner or big pot.
• Sterilized jars: Empty jars that have been heated in a boiling-water canner prior to being filled with food and capped. Keeping jars hot prevents them from breaking when hot food is added.