Gold Medal Pickles

Back in the day, you cold count on fall as canning season, making sure summer bounty got put up for the long winter months to come. Now, not so much and that’s a shame, ’cause there’s no better time than tough ones to take advantage of preserving good food.

Arguably the signature thing to can is the pickle, and why not? Like good mustards, I don’t consider our fridge full unless we’ve got a good selection of pickles onboard, and what better option therein than your own?

Choose your style: the pickles we’ll do here are referred to as Fresh Pack, which means they’re cured for a relatively short time, then covered in hot brine and processed in a hot water bath for canning. You can also do fermented pickles, which are the ‘barrel style’ from those old sepia toned pics you see now and then. There’s also fridge pickles that are super quick and easy, and you can find recipes for those right here.

Of course many things other than cukes can be pickled, from beets to watermelon rinds; once you get the bug, you can dive right on in. The NCHFP is where you wanna go for further research.

I’ve done pickles on my own for over 30 years now. Most have been great, a few have been awful, and I’ve learned from both. I’ve also plucked some juicy thoughts and practices from other good picklers I know to offer y’all a nice, dependable base to start your own explorations from, (Thanks to Dan, Carla, Christy, Annzie and anybody I forgot), so here we go…

Picking your pickles:
All cukes are not created equally. So chose carefully when your ready to can. Its great if you hit the timing right and can go to a you-pick outfit, or have your local CSA fill your needs. I missed the heart of the season a bit, so I did a little phone and neighbor recon work, then got ours from a grower who not only kept the cukes gently refrigerated, but separated them into basic size groups as well. That said, I still only paid $1.25 a pound, which was fair enough for us.

Choose cukes that are glossy and dark green, with distinct and plentiful knobs on ’em, just like you want to see on your finished pickles. Avoid ones that look bloated, as they are likely past their prime and going to seed; of course lesions, dark or soft spots are right out.

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Does size matter? Yeah, to some degree; the bigger the cuke, the longer it takes the brine and spices to infuse. Of course, you can cut your cukes into spears or rounds if you like and bypass any size concerns.

As far as amount needed goes, I chose 20 pounds of cukes in the sizes I wanted most, ended up rejecting about a pound of those after initial processing, and ended up with 18 quarts of lovely pickles; you can gauge from there how much you want to do.

Initial prep and brining:
If this is your first time canning, head on over to the NCHFP and read up on Principles of Home Canning and Using Boiling Water Canners before you start.

You’ll want a container big enough to handle your desired crop size; I use a 5 gallon bucket for ours and if you’re doing anything over about 8 quarts, you’ll want to do something similarly sized; avoid aluminum for this process; ideally you’ll want glass or stainless steel.

Make sure you’ve checked on everything you’ll need, from jars, rings and lids to vinegar and spices, so you’re truly ready to rock when your cukes are.

Toss your cukes into the sink and give the, a good rinse, as well as checking for bugs and other detritus…

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For the initial brine, thoroughly dissolve 3/4 Cup of salt in 2 Gallons of water. Here, as with all things food, quality matters. If your tap water ain’t good to drink, don’t pickle with it. Use nice, fish water, not distilled. Salt should ideally be canning or pickling salt, which does not contain iodine or anti-caking agents; the iodine can impart a nasty, bitter taste to pickles and the anti-caking agents tend to make things cloudy, so they really are to be avoided. Read your labels carefully at the store, or head on over to Leeners and get the good stuff with no worries. You do not need to heat this brine, (which can also make pickles mushy), just make sure the salt is completely dissolved.

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Trim all the blossom ends of your cukes by about 1/8″; the blossoms have an enzyme that can soften cukes, and nobody likes mushy pickles. You can leave the stem ends on so long as they’re not too long, (1/4″ or less).

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Toss your cukes onto a bucket or non-reactive container, and makes sure your brine covers them completely. Use a plate and weight of some kind to make sure the floaters stay fully submerged. You should brine for at least 12 hours and up to 24 hrs.

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When initial brining is complete, drain your cukes, fill your vessel with fresh, cold water and move on the fun stuff.

Pickling:
The ratios for pickling brine are somewhat flexible, depending on what you’re pickling. What I’ve got here is pretty uniformly reflected in my cohorts versions as well. Pickling spices are really wide open to interpretation; my fellow picklers choices run the gamut from nothing but salt to quite complex indeed; even dill isn’t a requirement unless you want dill pickles… Our spice blend is is a very nice blend of sweet, spicy and hot. Try this or make your own as you see fit.

The one secret ingredient I’d advise you to find and use is grape leaves; they contain tannins that can do wonderful work toward keeping your pickles crisp. Rinse leaves well and trim off any browned or curled edges, then set aside.

The same rule applies for water used here. Additionally, I’d strongly advise that you do not buy pickling spices from the grocery. Get your spices as fresh as you can, get them while whenever you can, and blend/grind your own.

Vinegar should be 5%, but it’s up to you what version you use. We like good apple cider vinegar for the light, fruity note it imparts, but you can use white if you like. Avoid heavily flavored versions and create your own signature pickle.

The ratios detailed here are for about 5 – 6 quarts of pickles; scale up or down as you see fit. You’ll end up with a bit too much brine, but better too much than not enough, and you can always fridge pickle something with the extra.

Pickling Brine:
2 Quarts Vinegar
2 Quarts Water
1/2 Cup Pickling Salt
1/4 Cup Sugar, (You can sub Honey, Agave Nectar, etc, but be aware of altered flavor notes)

In a non-reactive stock pot over high heat, combine all ingredients and bring to a rolling boil. Make sure sugar and salt are completely dissolved.

You may add a sachet of 1 Tablespoon of pickling spices to the boil if you like; use fine weave cheesecloth or a tea ball to hold ’em.

Pickling Spices:
1 Tablespoon whole Yellow Mustard seed.
1 Tablespoon whole Brown Mustard seed.
1 teaspoon mixed whole Peppercorns.
1 teaspoon whole Grains of Paradise.
1 teaspoon whole Coriander seed.
1 teaspoon whole Juniper berry.
1 Bay Leaf, crumbled.

Optional, add to each quart as desired:
(We use the garlic, ginger, clove, cinnamon and dill in all ours, and add the Jalapeños and/or dried chiles just for our hot quarts.)
1 clove fresh Garlic, peeled and skinned.
Fresh Ginger root, peeled and chopped.
1 whole Clove berry.
1/2 fresh Jalapeño chile, stemmed, seeded and deveined.
1″ Cinnamon stick.
1-2 small heads fresh Dill

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Sanitize your jars in the dishwasher, or in water held above 165 F for at least 5 minutes. Rims and lids get the same hot water treatment; set them aside on a clean towel.

Do a quick chiffonade cut to your rinsed grape leaves, and add about 1/2 a leaf to each quart.

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Drain your brined cukes and add equal measures of the pickling spices to each sanitized jar. Carefully pack cukes into your jars. You want them full, but not jammed in there so tight that brine and spices won’t be able to freely do their thing. Leave the cuke level in each jar about 1/4″ below the start of the jar’s neck.

Seal your jars with the sanitized lids and rims, hand tight as you can get ’em.

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Canning:
Set your jars on a clean towel right next to your brine on the stove. Carefully ladle brine into each jar, leaving 1/2″ of headroom per jar.

Now it’s water bath processing time. You’ll want canning tongs to safely handle the hot jars; if you don’t have ’em, get ’em!

Have your canning pot filled with enough water over high heat such that a cycle of jars being processed will have at least 1″ of water above the lids.

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Do not set jars on the base of your pot. Use a canning ring or basket to allow some space between the jar and the pot to minimize the possibility of jars shattering.

The recommended processing time for fresh pack Pickles in a boiling-water canner, per the NCHFP are as follows: water temperature MUST remain above 180 F throughout each processing cycle.
Process Time at 6,000 ft
Pints 10 min 15 20
Quarts 15 min. 20 25

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Carefully remove jars back to the clean towel after processing. Listen and watch for the telltale little metallic pop or click that ells you your lids have properly vacuum sealed. You will see a distinct small center ring in each lid when it’s properly sealed. Jars that do not seal properly are not safe for long term non-refrigerated storage!

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When your jars have cooled completely, check all lids and rings for tightness, then store your pickles in a relatively cool, dark place and allow the to do their thing for at least 60 days before sampling, (And 90 is better yet). Once they’re opened, they’re fridge only storage, of course.

Enjoy, share and compare!

E & M

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