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Pickling summer’s plenty
(article, Liz Crain)
Whorls of feathery dill, tightly rolled grape leaves, and cucumbers steeped in salty, sour brine. For me, nothing signifies summer more than wide-mouth jars of pickles cooling on the kitchen counter.
Sure, you can buy pickles year-round at most grocery stores, but they most likely have little, if anything, to do with your summer or your community. Make your own pickles instead and you’ll enjoy months of close-to-home, close-to-the-heart eating.
Despite what you might think, learning how to pickle isn’t difficult. In fact, it's a sure-fire way to preserve summer in your pantry without too much effort.
When my boyfriend and I moved to Oregon several years ago, one of the first things I did was break ground for a backyard garden. I'd worked on several farms via WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), but I'd never been lucky enough to cook in any of those farm-fresh kitchens. Now the backyard bounty was my own, and there was a lot of it.
Our next-door neighbor, an Italian woman named Mary, was still gardening well into her 80s when we moved in. A few months later, after I'd brought her a basket of my early-season vegetables, she gave me a copy of an old family recipe for spicy garlic dills. That's been my pickling cornerstone for years, even though I've pickled everything from Copper River salmon to peppery nasturtium pods by now.
h3. Canned, fermented, and quick pickles
There are three basic types of pickles. Depending on your household, palate, and storage capabilities, one type will most likely become your favorite.
Canned pickles keep on pantry shelves or in cool basements for months, sometimes years. The ins and outs of canning may seem daunting — you will need some special equipment and should follow recipes for food safety — but if you pick up one of the many books on the subject (such as The Joy of Pickling) or enlist the help of a seasoned canner, it's worth the fuss.
[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Pickling cucumbers."]
Fermented pickles require the most patience. You have to keep them at room temperature in a salty brine for days, sometimes weeks, until they develop the desired taste and texture. Although fermented pickles take the longest to prepare, microscopic bacteria do most of the work.
Quick pickles are my favorite. With our two-person household and love of crunchy, flavor-packed pickles (canning and fermentation tend to soften pickles slightly), these are ideal. You prepare a hot brine and pour that over the cucumbers and spices. Once the jars have cooled, you can keep them in the refrigerator (I prefer plastic lids to metal ones, because they don't oxidize) for months of quick eating.
h3. Prep work
I prepare pickles so often in the summer that there’s usually a stainless-steel stockpot filled with varying amounts of vinegary brine on our stovetop at all times. In addition to my own garden, the farmers’ market is full of pickle-ready produce. And I never know who will come by with tasty garden surplus: pickling cukes, yellow pear tomatoes, burgundy green beans (which turn green when they encounter heat), hardneck garlic. So I like to be prepared.
Remember that what you put in the pickle jar is what you'll take out. If you keep your freshly harvested cukes in the fridge for a few days and they shrivel and soften, the pickles you make from them will never be crunchy. So try to pickle as soon as possible after harvesting or buying produce.
Another bit of advice: save tempered glass jars. I have jars (commercial canning jars and otherwise) that I've used for years. My favorite jars to store pickles in are free — large deli-sized jars that I scavenge. Most local delis and restaurants are more than happy to get rid of them, and tall deli jars are much better for storing in my fridge, as opposed to scores of easy-to-knock-over small jars.
Just make sure when using a non-commercial canning jar that you test its temper first by slowly pouring in hot, near-boiling water. I've had a couple of large deli jars packed with pickles split down the middle with an especially hot brine. Spicy Dill Falls is not a scenic stop.
No matter what type of pickle you make, you'll most likely include these five basic ingredients.
Salt keeps pickles tasty and safe to eat. Although you can use a fancy French sel gris or Hawaiian volcanic sea salt, your safest bet is the widely available pickling/canning salt. The difference between canning salt and table salt is that canning salt does not contain iodide or anti-caking additives. Although neither will harm you in small quantities, they’re not necessary and often throw a haze in the brine that makes your pickles less pretty.
Pickling vinegar needs to be 4 to 6 percent acetic acid. Luckily, most commercial American vinegars are standardized to this acidity. You can use specialty vinegars — flavored, fruited, or herbed — but check the acidity. If you want to use non-pasteurized vinegar, that's fine, too, but check the acidity and bring it to a full boil before pickling with it.
[%image feature-image float=left width=400 caption="Ring bands for canning."]
As a general rule, water that's good for drinking is fine for pickling. If it has a lot of chlorine or impurities, however, find another source.
Aromatics — either fresh or dried — can be incorporated whole, crushed, or ground. You can use a commercial pickling spice mix, but I think it's more fun to hand-pick the herbs and spices so that every batch is unique. Some people bundle their pickling aromatics in tied cheesecloth and remove them after the pickles have cooled, but I throw everything in loose and allow the flavor to develop over time.
Firming agents are for those (like me!) who are as concerned with a pickle's crunch as with its flavor. If you're in my camp, consider adding sliced horseradish root or rolled leaves (such as grape, oak, cherry, or peach leaves) to your pickles. Many leaves are considered good for crisping. I swear by fresh rolled-up grape leaves, thanks to our old neighbor Mary; I roll two to four into every jar of pickles. You should also consider alum (small amounts add crunch but often impart off flavors) and lime (soak your cukes in it and then rinse them several times before pickling).
h3. Going it alone
One of the best parts about pickling is sourcing ingredients for peak freshness and flavor — sometimes right off the vine if you have your own vegetable garden. Experiment with everything from unique vinegars and specialty salts to fresh herbs and spices such as rosemary, thyme, coriander, and lavender.
One year I was determined to produce everything necessary for those spicy garlic dills. I grew the garlic, dill, chiles, and pickling cucumbers (lemon cukes, Armenian burpless, and good old pickling cukes) in the backyard. But I lost steam at the vinegar (I did use locally made vinegar) and salt.
Maybe this will be the summer, however, when I lug sheet pans to the beach to evaporate seawater into salt and store leftover wine in the utility room for vinegar. Then I could really say that I’d done it all myself.
p(bio). Liz Crain is a writer in Portland, Oregon.