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The Sweet and Sour of Pickling

There is a reason, I discovered, that households of yore required at least one full-time homemaker to keep things running smoothly

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The final product, a hopefully delicious one at that. Photo by Lisa Bramen

Sometime around hour six of my first attempt at pickling—a project I had naively thought would take half as long—I heard my mother’s voice in my head. This was no flashback to lessons learned at her apron strings. The only things my mother ever canned were troublesome file clerks at the law office she used to manage. Instead, the sound I heard was her laughter at learning that I planned to try pickling. It was the same surprised, gently mocking chuckle she had given at each step of my transformation from a city girl who rarely ventured into the kitchen to a rural landowner, enthusiastic home cook and novice vegetable gardener.

Pickling and canning was the natural next step in the progression. Even tiny gardens often produce more fresh veggies than can be eaten—or even given away—before they go bad. My first garden, which has gone surprisingly well, is no exception. To avoid waste you have to preserve the bounty somehow. My boss, who grew up helping her mother, a farmer’s wife, “put by” dozens of jars of pickles, preserves and canned fruits and vegetables each year, made it sound easy and fun. For extra encouragement, she gave me a copy of the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving as a gift.

So, as my refrigerator filled with surplus green beans and cucumbers, I carved out a weekend afternoon for the project. Fun? Debatable. Easy? Definitely not.

Things might have gone better if: a) My legs and feet hadn’t already been aching from the seven-mile hike I had done the previous day; b) I had attempted only one recipe on my first go at pickling, rather than three; and c) I hadn’t had the insanely ambitious plan to also make dinner and bake a pie with the wild blueberries we had picked on the hike.

It’s not that there was anything overly complicated about the recipes I was attempting: dilly beans, pickled green tomatoes and dill cucumber slices, three of the classics. It was just a lot more time-consuming than I had anticipated. There is a reason, I discovered, that households of yore required at least one full-time homemaker to keep things running smoothly.

The biggest problem, believe it or not, was getting the water hot enough for the boiling-water bath that the jars must sit in for a time after they’re filled with vegetables and pickling liquid. The hot bath kills harmful microorganisms, seals the jars and makes them airtight. It takes a whole lot of water to cover a half-dozen standing pint jars in a giant graniteware pot, and my 1962 electric range with the wonky front burner just wasn’t up to the task. I swear I had it cranked to the max for an hour, with nary a bubble to show for it. I tried to move the pot to the other, more dependable large burner in the back, but it wouldn’t fit underneath the second oven with the lid on. Desperate, I improvised by covering the pot with a large wooden cutting board instead. It probably wasn’t very good for the cutting board, but it worked.

After six or so hours of standing around on my aching feet waiting for water to boil, I eventually came out with a grand total of seven jars of pickles. They’d better be delicious.

If I haven’t dissuaded you from trying pickling yourself—and I hope I haven’t—here are some more tips and resources that I plan to use when I try again:

First of all, learn from my mistake and set aside plenty of time for the project. Also, make sure your stove works before you’ve washed and cut up mounds of vegetables.

Pack the jars tightly enough with vegetables that they won’t float when the pickling liquid is poured into the jars. You want the vegetables to be completely covered with liquid, while leaving a small amount of space at the top of the jar.

Remove visible bubbles from the jar with a plastic knife, chopstick or other nonmetallic instrument. There may also be bubbles hiding below the surface; stick the instrument all the way down into the jar several times to release them.

The water bath around the jars of pickles will boil more quickly if you use several small pots or kettles and then consolidate them in the big pot. I wish I had known this time-saving trick before my pickling misadventure.

The jar lids will become concave if you’ve processed them correctly, but this doesn’t happen until they’ve cooled. Wait 24 hours to test by pressing the center of the lid down; if you can move it, it’s not airtight and you should either reprocess or refrigerate.

For recipes and instructions, see freshpreserving.com, the website for the mason jar brand Ball.

A few recent cookbooks bring a fresh approach to the canning scene with recipes that go beyond the basics:

Canning for a New Generation: Bold, Fresh Flavors for the Modern Pantry by Liana Krissoff and Rinne Allen has a couple dozen internationally inspired pickle recipes, including Indian Hot “Lime” Pickle and Persian Tarragon Pickles.

Put ‘em Up!: A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook by Sherri Brooks Vinton explains how to pickle everything from ramps to watermelon rind.

Tart and Sweet: 101 Canning and Pickling Recipes by Kelly Geary and Jessie Knadler offers such delicious-sounding recipes as Southeast Asian Carrot Daikon Pickles and Orange Chili Pickled Baby Fennel.

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About Lisa Bramen
Lisa Bramen

Lisa Bramen was a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com's Food and Think blog. She is based in northern New York and is also an associate editor at Adirondack Life magazine.

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