PICKLES. THE word evokes fond memories of a spice-scented kitchen, the pungent smell of vinegar, the feeling and another job has been done well.
When I was growing up, July and August were the zenith of the pickle season, a time when our home became a hubbub of activity. Fruits and vegetables were picked from our bountiful garden during the early morning hours or a dusk, when they were not wilting from the harshness of a blazing sun. They were carried to the basement for cleaning and then to the kitchen for pickling. Within 24 hours, depending upon the recipe, the food had been processed and stood in rows of gleaming jars, gaining the appreciation they so deserved.
Pickling is an old art, dating from the time when there were no fresh fruits, vegetables or meats during long, cold winters. Pickling became a way to use and store surplus food and to add tasty dishes to an otherwise dull winter diet.
Today's grocery stores proclaim the interest people have in pickles. There is something for everyone on the shelf: crispy dills to accompany hamburgers, relishes with which to smother hot dogs, hot pickled peppers for the Mexican food enthusiast, pickled beets and beans, and so the list continues. With all of these choices readily available, why does the custom of home pickling continue? Many people continue to pickle for the same reasons their ancestors did. It is a way to utilize excess food, it is relatively inexpensive, and it is a way to expand one's creativity. Making pickles is to the home canner what making bread is to the cook. It is the piece de resistance , the showcase for one's culinary skills.
Though experience, as in anything else, does help to make the pickling process smoother, pickling is simply not difficult. Pickling success depends mainly on three things. These things are quality ingredients, proper equipment and carefully followed recipes.
The basic ingredients for almost any pickle recipe include the fruit or vegetable, spices, sugar, salt and vinegar. The produce should be firm, free of soft spots, bright in color and uniform in size so that pieces will pickle at the same rate. Cucumbers must be of the unwaxed variety or the pickling brine will not permeate the fruit. The best cucumbers are small to medium sized ones, those larger tend to be too seedy to be desirable. Although any fruit or vegetable is best when pickled after immediate harvesting, cucumbers especially benefit from quick processing. Once picked, unless kept refrigerated, they tend to deteriorate quickly and will not make a satisfactory pickle. All fruits and vegetables must be spotlessly clean. It is advisable to wash them under running water and scrub them with a vegtable brush. Any faulty spot must be removed. These procedures insure against unwanted bacteria.
Spices should also be fresh. Old ones may have lost their pungency. Unless otherwise specified in the recipe, spices should be whole. Ground spices tend to darken the pickle and cloud the syrup.
White granulated sugar is the preferred sweetener, though brown sugar -- which will darken the pickle -- or honey can be used.
Although pickling salt is recommended often, regular table salt may be used successfully. Iodized table salt is to be avoided, however. It, too, has a darkening effect on the pickles.
Vinegar must have an acidity level of 4 to 6 percent. This level is usually shown on the label. Cider vinegar and white distilled vinegar are the main choices for pickle recipes. Cider vinegar has a fuller, richer flavor, but will add some color to the vegetable or fruit. White vinegar is sharper in taste, but will give the product a lighter color. Both will pickle well, so choose according to taste and/or recipe.
Proper equipment includes household scales, a large processing kettle or old-fashioned wash-boiler, tongs, timer, cauldrons of unchipped enamel, aluminum, stainless steel or glass, perfect canning jars, new lids, rings labels, slotted spoons and the usual assortment of knives for cutting, paring and slicing. All of these utensils must be spotlessly clean and be readily at hand.
One of the most important directions in pickle recipes occurs at the end of the recipe. This is where the recipe usually states: Pack into clean jars. Jars must not only be clean; they must be sterilized. Jar preparation includes washing in hot, soapy water, rinsing and then sterilizing in boiling water for 10 minutes. A processing kettle with a bottom rack is useful for this procedure. The rack allows water to circulate freely and keeps the jars from bouncing on the bottom of the pan. Jars should be completely covered by water. To avoid breaking, they should not touch one another or the sides of the utensil. After sterilizing, jars are lifted with tongs and allowed to air dry. Use of towels may introduce harmful bacteria.
After the jars and pickles have been prepared, the jars are ready to be filled. If the containers are being filled with hot food, remember that they must also be hot or they will crack or break. Simply place the jars in hot water for a few minutes and let them remain there while filling them.
Fill the jars to 1/2 inch of the top, and make sure that all food is well covered with liquid. Wipe any residue from the rim with a clean, hot, damp cloth. For best results, use self-sealing lids. It is a good idea to sterilize these also before placing on the jars. Follow the manufacturer's directions for proper use of lids and rings.
A hot water bath frequently is recommended as a final precaution against unwanted bacteria formation, particularly in those recipes where hot foods are being packed into hot jars. Use the processing kettle for this. Place jars on the rack, add boiling water to cover jar tops by one inch, place on heat, and watch for the water to come to a rolling boil. Keep water boiling steadily for 10 minutes or as directed by the recipe. Remove jars from water, dry and let cool.
After cooling, test the seal on the jar by holding it upside down. If this shows that the seal is not leakproof, the sterilizing process must be repeated or the pickle must be stored in the refrigerator and used as soon as possible.
Label jars with date of packing and store in a cool, dry, dark place. Pickles are best when permitted to stand at least six weeks without opening.
The recipes offered below are from a family collection. Some are over 100 years old, but are completely usable in the modern kitchen. From my father's side of the family comes the tangy (but not tart) beet pickle and the very satisfying bread and butter pickle. The beet pickle is a wonderful addition to the dinner table and the bread and butter pickle is a delicious layered on a beef or chicken sandwich or by itself on buttered bread, as the name suggests.
From my mother's side of the family comes the unusual green tomato pickle. This is an especially easy one to prepare and a must for tomato lovers. My mother has created her own version of sweet pepper relish, which makes a delicious topping for bean or lentil soup. BEET PICKLE (Makes 3 pints) 6 pounds medium beets 1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar 1/2 cup water 1 cup sugar 1 tablespoon pickling spices
Place clean beets in kettle and add cold water to cover. Heat to boiling; reduce heat to simmering, cover and cook until tender (approximately 30 to 45 minutes). Drain liquid, cool slightly, slip skins off and quarter. Put into pint jars.
Boil vinegar, water, sugar and spices for 5 minutes. Pour this mixture over beets. Seal and follow with a 5 minute hot water bath. BREAD AND BUTTER PICKLES (Makes about 6 pints) 3 quarts cucumbers, peeled and sliced 3 medium onions, peeled and sliced 1/2 cup salt 3 cups sugar 1 pint apple cider vinegar 1/2 pint water 1/4 cup mustard seed 1/2 tablespoon celery seed Small pod red pepper (taken from pickling spice box)
Combind cucumbers, onions and salt. Let stand for 3 hours and then drain.
Combine sugar, vinegar, water, mustard seed, celery seed and red pepper pod.Boil for 3 minutes. Reduce heat to simmer and add cucumber and onion mixture. Let them heat thoroughly but do not boil as the food will become too soft. Pack while hot and seal immediately. GREEN TOMATO PICKLE (Makes about 3 pints) 6 medium green tomatoes 6 medium green peppers 6 medium onions 3 teaspoons salt 2 cups brown sugar 2 cups cider vinegar
Slice tomatoes; dice peppers and onions. Place tomatoes in bottom of pan and sprinkle and 1 teaspoon salt; add layer of peppers and 1 teaspoon salt; add layer of onions and 1 teaspoon salt. Let this mixture set overnight. In the morning, pour off juice.
Mix sugar and vinegar well. Pour over vegetables and cook gently until they are tender. Do not let them fall to pieces or get mushy.
Pack in jars and seal. SWEET PEPPER RELISH (Makes about 7 pints) 8 sweet red peppers 8 sweet green peppers 8 sweet yellow peppers 7 medium onions 2 tablespoons mustard seed 1/2 cup water 3 cups sugar 2 tablespoons salt
Seed and chop peppers. Peel and dice onions. Combine peppers and onions with mustard seed, vinegar, water, sugar and salt.Boil this mixture 1/2 hour.
Seal at once in hot, sterilized jars. SQUASH PICKLES (Makes 4 pints) 8 cups sliced yellow crookneck squash 2 cups sliced onions 1 tablespoon salt (not iodized) 1 cup diced green pepper 2 cups cider vinegar 3 1/2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon celery seed 1 teaspoon mustard seed
Combine squash and onion. Sprinkle with salt and let stand 1 hour.
Combine green pepper, vinegar, sugar, celery seed and mustard seed; bring to boil.
Pack squash and onions in hot jars. Cover with vinegar mixture and seal.
Follow with a 5 minute hot water bath. ICE BOX PICKLES (Makes about 3 pints) 6 cups cucumbers, unpeeled and thinly sliced 1 cup onions 1 cup green peppers 1 tablespoon salt 1 cup cider vinegar 2 cups sugar 1 teaspoon celery seed
Mix cucumbers, onions, peppers and salt together and refrigerate 2 hours. Drain.
Mix vinegar, sugar and celery seed and pour over cucumber mixture. Keep covered and stored in refrigerator. This will keep for 3 months.