Thursday, August 14, 2014

My Quest for the Perfect Pickle

Pickles have always been my nemesis. The first year I learned to can, I put up nearly 15 quarts of pickles. They were “bread and butter” pickles which makes absolutely no sense to me because why would pickles be associated with bread and butter? Once upon a time did people eat butter and pickle sandwiches? All that aside, bread and butter is not sweet and sweet is what these pickles were, plus mealy and more of a brown color than green. I worried with every bite that they’d gone bad. I had a new baby at the time and like most new parents I was stricken with a paranoia that everything was out to kill me or my babe. So I placed the jars in a neat row above the bulkhead in my kitchen and they stayed there for nearly five years until we moved. They looked really nice up there and people often commented on how clever and quaint I was to can pickles. Luckily, no one ever asked to taste those pickles.

In our tiny kitchen at our next house there was no bulkhead so when I finally came across the jars (packed by the movers three to a box with insane amounts of paper and bubble wrap), I promptly opened them up and dumped their contents in the compost bin.

I took another shot at pickles a few years later and created beautiful dill pickles that were so bitter they left an aftertaste that didn’t go away until hours after I’d dumped the last jar in the compost. The next year I tried a new recipe and the pickles turned a completely unappetizing watery brown color which was fine since they had no taste at all. So the next year I went out and bought a kit. (Yes, they do make pickle kits.) The pickles looked gorgeous, but once again they were mealy and super sweet. I didn’t dump those jars and pulled them out on occasion to make egg salad, but they certainly weren’t the pickles I’d been dreaming of. (Yes, some people do dream of perfect pickles.) I’m fairly sure I still have one of those jars in the back of my cabinet.

I moved on to sun pickles, refrigerator dills, and sweet pickles marinated in an old fashioned crock to mediocre results. A few years ago I tried using the recipe out of the Ball Jar cookbook which is my go-to cookbook for all my canning adventures. The pickles turned out so salty they became a family joke. My oldest son was about 14 at the time which is just the right age to eat something for the sole purpose of freaking out the people around you. He ate several to prove he could, but then decided he liked them. “They’re so bad, they’re actually kind of addictive,” he said. I decided he had a salt deficiency and finally hung up my pickle hat. (No, there is no such thing as a pickle hat.) I was really good at applesauce, salsa, pizza sauce, pepper jelly, and tomato-basil soup. Who needs homemade pickles?

My decision to quit pickle-making was affirmed when I discovered the pickle stand at Eastern Market. Oh, those pickles! Sweet-hot, Garlic-dill, Jalapeño, so many wonderful crispy delicious pickles! Never mind that they cost $8 a quart and I had to drive nearly 30 minutes to reach the stand which was only open on Fridays. Problem solved.

And then this summer a new pickle stand opened at Central Market, the market I frequent weekly. Lancaster Pickles makes delicious, fresh pickles and gives free samples. The owners were friendly and fun to talk to. One day while making my purchase of fresh garlic-dills and Sweet horseradish chips, I shared my pickle problem with them. I told them of my salty, bitter, mushy attempts. Kate, one of the owners (and a serious pickle master. And Yes, there are such things as pickle masters.) asked me a few questions and then gave me a five minute tutorial on how to make crispy, delicious pickles.

I hurried home, picked my cucumber vines clean and set to work. And guess what! YES! Finally – crispy, delicious, perfect pickles! Now, before I share the secret with all of you, you must promise me that you’ll stop by the Lancaster Pickle stand at Central Market. Say hi to Kate – she is my hero.

The trick is this – salt the pickles. Before you start a recipe, whatever recipe you want, wash and cut your cucumbers and layer them with kosher salt (or Celtic salt or pickling salt, anything that doesn’t have anti-caking agents and potassium and bleaches added to it). Let them sit on your counter for 1 ½ - 2 hours. Stir the cucumbers gently to be sure the salt is covering them. Then rinse them and carry on. Amazing!

Dill Pickles
(Makes 7 or 8 quarts)
  • 7-8 lbs cucumbers
  • 1 cup pickling or kosher salt
  • 1 Tbsp (15 ml) pickling or canning salt
  • 7 cups (1.75 L) water
  • 6-1/2 cups (1.625 L) of white vinegar
  • 21 cloves of garlic, each cut into quarters
  • 14 dill heads
  • 35 peppercorns
  • 7 grape leaves (optional)
1- Wash and cut cucumbers. (If using whole, trim ends and prick all over with a fork.)
2- In a large bowl, layer cucumbers and salt. Let sit for at least 1 ½ - 2 hours.
3- Rinse and drain the cucumbers. Rinse again and drain well. Set aside.
4- In a pot combine the 1 Tbsp salt, 7 cups water, and 6 ½ cups vinegar. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring often until salt is dissolved. Boil for 1 minute. Reduce heat to low and keep liquid hot. Keep covered to prevent evaporation.
4 Place 1 grape leaf (This is optional. Grape leaves are rumored to help keep pickles crisp but I couldn’t find any at my market and the Japanese beetles ate all the leaves on our grapes.), 6 pieces of garlic, 4 to 5 peppercorns and 1 dill head into the jar. Pack cucumbers into the jar, leaving about 1 inch (2.5 cm) headspace, and top with 6 pieces of garlic and 1 dill head.
5- If you are making refrigerator dills, let vinegar solution cool and then pour over cucumbers. Refrigerate for at least three days before eating.
6 - If canning, pour hot pickling liquid into the jar, leaving 1/2-inch (1 cm) headspace.
7- Place the jars in the canner and process for 15 minutes.

We’ve eaten all my refrigerator dills. They’re that good. I just canned the pickles this past weekend, so I’m waiting til the end of the week to open a jar and taste. Part of me doesn’t want to open the jars because they look so pretty and I’m so proud. And well, you know my pickle history. And yes, you can have a pickle history.

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