Pickling: it’s a big dill


By Katherine Larson

I come to the topic of pickles as a relative neophyte, but like many converts am extra-enthusiastic.

For years, pickles were to me the flavorful objects that miraculously appeared, fully formed, in glass jars in grocery stores or on plates in restaurants. The idea of having anything to do with their creation seemed far-fetched.

Then I met Gregg Wixtrom, my husband’s cousin, and through him gained access to a steady supply of cornichons, the brightest star—from the pickling perspective—in the cucumber firmament. Fresh off the vine, cornichons are delectable eating; pickled, they are superb.

Moreover, the supply of fresh cucumbers was such that at even the most voracious rate of consumption we found ourselves unable to keep up. Clearly, it was time to start pickling.

In doing so, I joined the legions of cooks over at least 3,000 years who have taken advantage of nature’s bounty in one season by pickling vegetables for later use. Aristotle praised pickles. Cleopatra thought that eating pickles made her beautiful. Amerigo Vespucci was a pickle merchant. Ulysses S. Grant breakfasted on pickles.

Since I am a creature of the 21st century, I could start out easily, with refrigerator pickles. These pickles won’t last forever, and they depend on the coldness of the refrigerator for the time they do last. But they’re easy and tasty and the perfect entry-level pickle.

Begin, of course, with the freshest cucumbers you can find: straight off your own vine, or a relative’s, or the local farmer’s at the market. If they have achieved ripeness without being sprayed by chemicals, very much the better. Gently clean them and nip off the blossom end—it has enzymes that can adversely affect your results.

Pickles A jar lifter and a good pair of mitts are essential for lifting hot jars out of boiling water.

For slicing the cucumbers, you have a choice. If you have lots of time, a good sharp knife, and a meditative bent, you can spend a peaceful afternoon cutting slice after slice after slice, each perfectly formed.

Some of you may have inherited a manual slicer that attaches to the end of the kitchen counter. A long handle turns a sharp disc that slices each cucumber as it’s fed into the device. Very useful!

If your life is less Zen-like, if time is of the essence and you don’t mind a misshapen slice or two, the slicing disk of your food processor is your friend. Poke those cukes into the feed tube, give them a whirr, and voila: an entire bowl full of slightly irregular slices.

For refrigerator pickles, just take those slices and pack them into clean glass jars, not all the way up to the top. Then prepare your pickling liquid, pour it over the cucumbers to completely cover them, tap the jars to get rid of trapped air bubbles, let them cool, cover, and refrigerate. That’s it! They should last in the fridge a good month or so.

What pickling liquid? That depends on your preference. Me, I like a good garlic dill: for two pounds of cucumbers, I use six cloves of garlic, 3/4 teaspoon crushed dried red pepper, three teaspoons dill seed, two tablespoons kosher salt, and two teaspoons whole black peppercorns, all brought to a boil in a combination of 1-1/2 cups cider vinegar and 1-1/2 cups water.

Other members of my family love bread-and-butter pickles. For these, layer a couple of cups of onion, sliced very thin, in with those two pounds of cucumbers. Then, for the pickling liquid, you’ll want to bring to a boil 1-1/2 cups of white vinegar with 3/4 cup white sugar, 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, four cloves of garlic sliced very thin, and 1/2 teaspoon each of whole mustard seeds, whole celery seeds, crushed dried red pepper, ground turmeric, and ground black pepper.

Pickles A variety of pickled vegetables – here, brussel sprouts, carrots, and ramps or wild leeks – adds pizzazz to an otherwise ordinary meal

Why the different vinegars? Because of their different flavors. Distilled white vinegar is inexpensive and keeps colors well but has a somewhat harsh flavor that needs to be counteracted with other ingredients. Cider vinegar, with its golden color and mellower flavor, stands on its own a bit better, though your pickles may darken somewhat. Wine vinegars add their own characteristic overtones. Rice vinegar is so mild that it must be reserved for short-term refrigerator pickles; don’t use it for preserving.

Whichever liquid you choose, once it’s been brought to the boil and poured over the cucumbers there’s one more essential ingredient: patience. At least 48, and preferably 96, hours in the refrigerator are needed before the flavors come together into true pickledom.

Refrigerator pickles are all very well—no, they’re better than that, they’re delicious—but they do have their limitations. As noted, they last only a month or so. And most of us have only finite refrigerator space, and sooner or later we get annoyed to find such a high proportion of that precious real estate occupied by jars.

So we enter the big leagues: processed pickles. You don’t really need a special pickling pot, though a big deep one is essential. (Not copper, brass, or zinc; poisonous chemical reactions would result.) You don’t really need lots of special pickling tools, though in my opinion a jar lifter is a life-saver and worth every penny. You do need special jars and lids: mason jars, specially made to withstand boiling; reusable screw rings, and one-time-use flat lids to provide the seal. They’re all available at local grocery stores.

I’m not going to attempt a comprehensive dissertation on processing pickles. As with the refrigerator sort, the basic idea is to immerse your cucumbers (and maybe onions, and maybe other yummy vegetables as you get more confident) in a good hot pickling liquid. The difference is the preservation process. This demands that you place the jars filled with hot mixture into a boiling water bath, fully immersed with at least an inch of water above them, for at least 15 minutes—longer for some vegetables.

A good clean seal is essential. Tap out your air bubbles, but leave half an inch at the top of the jar (don’t fill it right the way up to the top) for proper sealing. A good clean seal is, I repeat, absolutely essential. Test each jar before you store it; if the seal is imperfect, those must be put in the fridge and eaten within the month or discarded.

Sarah, the daughter who taught me to do all this, also shared with me her recipe for sweet-and-hot pickles. She brings to a boil three cups white vinegar, 1-1/2 cups cider vinegar, 3-1/2 cups sugar, two tablespoons mustard seed, 1/2 teaspoon turmeric, four whole cloves, 10 tablespoons chopped garlic, and 24 whole small cayenne—or even, for extra zing, Thai birdseye—peppers. When it’s all boiling nicely, she adds three pounds of cucumbers and two cups of onions, sliced thin, and returns everything to a simmer before decanting it into the waiting jars and then processing for 15 minutes.

Pickles Be sure that the jars are well submerged to get a good seal.

The result is superb. It is particularly superb after several months have passed and the flavors have really had a chance to develop, but we find it hard to curb our patience during those months.

What of salting the vegetables ahead of time to leach out moisture? Sure, go ahead! But it’s not strictly necessary unless your vegetables are particularly watery. Here’s where your choice of vegetables pays dividends: ordinary slicing cucumbers, especially if they’re not very fresh, should be salted; fresh cornichons or pickling cucumbers needn’t be.

And, of course, if you are pickling an inherently watery vegetable—say, that mound of zucchini which threatens to engulf your kitchen—letting the slices sit for a couple of hours with a good big handful of pickling salt ahead of time will definitely improve the final product.

Our grandparents may have used alum to preserve crispness. If you don’t like the idea of feeding this aluminum compound to yourself and your loved ones (it’s toxic in large doses), instead add a fresh clean young grape leaf to the bottom of each jar. Sour cherry leaves work well too

Ok. We made our pickles. We stored our pickles. We waited, and waited, and waited. Now we get to eat them!

And then we ask ourselves: how? Do we really truly want all that sweet-and-sourness, or just plain sourness, in every meal? There are the shelves down in the basement, groaning with filled jars, and there’s just one or two of us, and how on earth will we ever eat them all?

Pickles The pickle slice on the left with the big hole in its middle came from a cucumber that wasn’t fresh enough. The slices visible in other jars are nice and intact — fresh cucumbers!

Some people crave a cluster of pickles on the side of the plate with every lunchtime sandwich and every suppertime hamburger; bless them, and feed them.

If you are not one of them, here are some ideas.

First, grilled cheese sandwiches. An ordinary grilled cheese sandwich turns into something sublime if you include a thin layer of pickles between the bread and the cheese before grilling. The pickles cut the richness, add complexity of flavor, and enliven the entire dish.

Then there are tuna salads and chicken salads and salmon salads—all your lovely combinations of canned or leftover meat or fish with a mayonnaise-type dressing and the crunch of minced celery or onion. Mince a few pickles into the mixture, and taste how the flavors bloom.

Speaking of fish, one bite of your own homemade tartar sauce, using your own homemade pickles, will cause you to forswear the commercial bottled sort forever.

Or chop some pickles into your corned beef hash; or into beef stew; or into pot roast. Or add minced pickles to your black bean soup. Or even to your Vichyssoise, that classic French concoction of potatoes, leeks, and cream.

Any place where flavors are rich and unctuous, a hint of pickle will cut through and provide a whole new brightness of flavor. Experiment with gusto!


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