Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Pickle Primer, Part Two

In the previous post, I gave my recipe for Refrigerator Pickles.  Here are some other tips and secrets.

Start with good pickling cucumbers.  The fresher, the better.  When they are in season here, I get them from the farmers market.  Otherwise, I get them from my local fruit and vegetable market.  I'm sure the market pickles aren't ideal in terms of being organic and sustainable, but the market itself is a local business that sports solar panels for its energy.  I feel okay about that.  I have fantasies of growing my own cukes.  This year I even bought seeds, but ultimately, I have been unsuccessful.  In any case, wash your cukes thoroughly and then cut the ends off.  Slice into coins OR into spears, depending on your preference.  I usually get around 5 pounds at a time, which is about what a produce bag will hold.  Generally, the faster you process your pickles after purchasing them, the crispier they will be.  Full disclosure: the ones I made yesterday sat for 3 days.  They are not as delicious as I would like.

Make a brine.  I do a 2:1 white vinegar:water solution (although sometimes I prefer 3:1).  I usually do 4 cups vinegar, 2 cups water, and 1/2 cup kosher salt.  This is about enough for the aforementioned 5 pounds of cukes.  Most recipes will have you cook the brine on the stove.  I don't do this, partially because I am lazy and partially because I think my pickles are crispier with a "raw" brine.  Most recipes will also include sugar.  Sugar acts as a preservative and adds sweetness, but we eat our pickles so quickly and aren't into added sugar, so we skip it.  If you're a sugar kind of family, go ahead and add it.  You can also adjust salt and vinegar levels to your liking.

Prep your garlic.  I peel whole cloves, cut off the hard edge (which I save for broth) and cut the clove in half.  You can leave the cloves whole, which will be prettier in your jar but you'll need more cloves to impart the garlic flavor to your pickles.  Or you can slice your garlic, which is more work but will maximize your garlic flavor.  I go in between: the least amount of work and still pretty enough.

Gather your herbs and spices.  Which herbs and spices you use is a matter of taste, but I'll go over your choices.

Dill: For a traditional pickle flavor, I think dill is a must.  You can use fresh dill or dried dill seeds.  My first year, with all the fervor of a convert, I used only fresh dill.  The green feathery parts.  Then the farmers market had the seed heads and I realized that their flavor was far superior and they were gorgeous in the jars.  Then I couldn't get fresh one time and used dill seeds.  All are good.  All have pros and cons.  Dill seed is the cheapest and easiest to keep on hand, and this summer, it's been my choice.  I do love the look of fresh dill in the jars, though.

Celery Seed:  Love it, but I don't miss it when it's not there.  If you're not familiar with it, it's what adds that extra zesty something in a bloody mary.

Peppercorns: I use black peppercorns that I buy in bulk from Frontier.  I love their complex flavor.  You can skip them if you don't have them, but you'll be glad you used them!

Brown Mustard Seeds: This is my favorite non-essential edition.  Their flavor is subtle but I think it's what gives my pickles that certain Je ne sais quois.   Also, I really enjoy the look of them in the jars.

Prepared Pickling Spice:  Prepared pickling mixes are widely available and can be used in lieu of your own combination.  There are all kinds of these in the world and they are definitely a matter of taste.  Ellis likes the Frontier Pickling Spice.  It contains cloves and fennel and other things.  I don't love it, but it has a sweet tanginess that kids seem to enjoy.  There are other prepared mixes out there.  You can shop around to see what works best for your family.

Spice it up!  If you prefer a spicier pickles, add crushed red pepper, cayenne, or dried peppers.  I've never tried it, but I'll bet sweet onions would also be delish.

Other options:  Basically, you can put anything into fridge pickles.  Do you have a taste for curry?  Swap it out for dill.  Cilantro is awesome in anything, and pickles are no exception.  You can also use apple cider vinegar or any other vinegar you choose.  Improvise.  See what works for you.

Assemble your jars.  For canning, I always use approved canning jars.  But the beauty of refrigerator pickles is that you can use any old jar you have around.  I recycle many of our glass jars into the pickle brigade.  I prefer peanut butter jars, which have a wide mouth and aren't too deep.  

Fill each jar with cucumbers.  If you're using slices, stop about half way to add 2-3 pieces of garlic.  Add 2-3 more pieces of garlic on top, or more to taste.  Add herbs and spices.  Fill with brine.  Cover and shake it up to distribute the herbs and spices.

Refrigerate for at least a day before eating.  Frankly, I can't usually wait that long.  I've been known to slice the cukes extra thin so that they'll be ready faster.

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