Weekend Project: Pickling

With cucumbers, squash, and okra in peak season, now is the time to give pickling a try
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Stephen Ausmus
One of the best pieces of advice for pickling is to start with fresh produce, such as cucumbers straight off the vine.

This time of year, backyard gardens are pumping out produce. And it's hard to resist leaving the farmers market without bagfuls of fresh fruits and vegetables. Pickling is a great way to make use of summertime staples and extend their stay in the kitchen.

"If I were working with someone who wanted to get into canning, I would recommend pickling," says Kristin Davis, an extension agent with Mecklenburg County Cooperative Extension. Davis's role focuses on local foods.

Many people choose between two methods when it comes to pickling: refrigerator pickles and canned pickles. The refrigerator variety involves making a solution (generally of vinegar, sugar, and salt), covering the cucumbers (or other produce), placing them in a plastic or glass vessel, and storing in the refrigerator. If the pickles are allowed to ferment for a full week, they'll keep in the refrigerator for about two months.

Canned pickles require making a brine, packing the cucumbers and brine in glass canning jars, capping them with two-piece lids, and processing the jars in a hot-water bath. This process vacuum seals the lids and makes the pickles shelf stable.

Both pickling methods are good for novice cooks and those with limited kitchen space and supplies beacuse they require basic equipment and ingredients. You likely have everything needed for refrigerator pickles on hand. Make sure to purchase pickling salt, though. Regular table salt has an anticaking agent that causes cloudiness in the jar. Pick up a hot-water canner, canning jars, and two-piece lids at the hardware store, and you're set for canning pickles.

The flavors of both refrigerator and canned pickles are similar, but the textures differ. Canned pickles lose crispness in the cooking process. Davis recommends pre-soaking the cucumbers or other produce in ice water for four to five hours to help maintain crunch. Ball makes a product called Pickle Crisp, which also improves crispness.

When looking for produce for pickling, the No. 1 rule is to avoid punctured, bruised, or damaged vegetables. Cucumbers, for example, have enzymes near the bloom end that can cause the pickles to go soft. Make sure to cut off that part when preparing the vegetables. But bruises and punctured places can also cause the product to soften and increase the risk for other food-safety concerns. So select fresh, good-quality produce.

Cucumbers are an automatic thought for pickling, but also consider squash, okra, and green tomatoes. Zucchini and yellow squash make good bread-and-butter pickles, Davis says. Firm produce that's barely underripe works best.

Davis and other agents at the Extension recommend the National Center for Home Food Preservation as a resource for pickling advice and recipes. Davis will teach a class on pickling on August 15th as part of the Extension's Sustainable Living Series. Registration is required; click here to learn more.

If you want to get started pickling this weekend, Davis suggests the recipe below.

Cucumber pickles with onions or vegetable medley

8 cups cucumbers, thinly sliced

1 cup onion, peeled and sliced (2 medium onions or equal amounts of other vegetables, such as cauliflower, peppers, or carrots)

Pickling solution:

4 cups vinegar (5% acetic acid)

2 cups sugar

1/3 cup canning or pickling salt

1 1/2 teaspoons each celery seed, mustard seed, and turmeric

1. Mix pickling solution ingredients together until sugar is dissolved. Heating isn't required, but will help dissolve sugar and pickle the vegetables.

2. Wash and prepare the vegetables, trimming the blossom ends and discarding.

3. Fill hot, sterilized pint or quart jars with cucumbers and vegetables. Cover with solution, and cap with clean lids. Label and date, and store in the refrigerator at 40 degrees or colder for up to 2 weeks. Yield: 2 quarts.

Source: Ingham, B.H. (2002). Homemade pickles & relishes. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Extension, Cooperative Extension.

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