Sunday, July 17, 2011

Home Made Dill Pickles - A First Experiment

Making Your own pickles is a great way to put all those extra vegetables to use
So my backyard garden is producing cucumbers at an alarming rate. We've been eating quite a few of them, and even gave a few to our neighbors, but it's clear that we will have more cucumbers than we know what to do with. There is one thing that can help preserve all these great fresh cucumbers, and put them to good use later- I guess the saying should be- if life gives you cucumbers, make pickles! (OK, so that's not the saying, but you get the idea). I've never made pickles before, but the process is fairly simple if you have a a lot of cucumbers, a few basic pantry items, and the right mix of spices. After hunting around for some information about pickling, I found a general process that's easy enough to be a starting point for what will probably be a whole summer of pickling...

There are actually a large number of ways to make pickles. The more advanced options involve a large amount of time, and a carefully balanced pickling mix, and a carefully monitored and controlled fermentation. I didn't even bother researching fermented pickles- while they may be the best- it's just too much to take on, and probably more involved than a beginner should be willing to take on. Fermentation is a difficult thing, and can easily be done wrong, spoiling a batch of cucumbers, and wasting a lot of time. You may also risk food poisoning if you do it wrong.

So, I went with a method known as "quick process" pickling - it is simple to set up, and involves very little specialty equipment. It is also fast enough that you won't feel intimidated, and a beginner can sample the results relatively quickly. The more advanced version of this method involves actual canning- which is a little tricky, but not overly so. The canning process involves sealing then heating the finished jars in boiling water to sterilize them and make them shelf stable with no refrigeration. It is not quite as hard as it sounds, and if you plan on making a large amount of pickles, is worth the effort. However, if you only want to do a jar or two, and don't mind keeping them refrigerated (or eating them right away!), then you can forgo the canning part, and just keep them cold using the same basic process. These pickles will keep for around two months as long as they are refrigerated- you can't keep them on the shelf, or you'll have a bad science experiment on your hands. These are called "Refrigerator pickles" for obvious reasons.

The first thing you'll need are fresh cucumbers. The more fresh the cucumbers are, the better your results will be. Ideally, you want cucumbers that have not yet fully developed their seeds yet- you can tell by looking at the bumps/warts. A good pickle candidate will be warty- the skin should be as even green as possible, and the warts/bumps should still be prominent- once the seeds develop, the cucumbers will appear bloated in comparison, and may not  even have obvious warts any more. These cucumbers can still be made into pickles, but they will tend to turn soggy and lose that nice crunch.

If your cucumbers are too big to stuff into a mason jar easily, you can cut them into spears. If your cucumbers are small enough, you may find that they stay more crunchy leaving them whole. If you cut them- remember that any cucumbers that are curved will come out a little irregular shaped. If you're not too hung up on looks, don't worry, the pickle police will not come and haul you off to jail- just do the best you can, or set aside the ones that are more curvy for another use. Personally, I don't care if the spears are perfectly shaped, so we'll just chop away. Another tactic that also works is to cut the cucumbers into slices- either rounds, or long slices.

You'll need to make sure you have at least one mason jar with a lid. The lids you want are the two part lids- a flat top with the rubber seal, and a separate threaded ring to hold the lid on. This is critical if you plan on canning, but still a good idea if you're just making refrigerator pickles. For our refrigerator pickles, you could just make them in a plastic container- but the lack of a sealed container means that they will not last as long as a properly sealed jar. If you want to actually go through the canning process, I suggest starting with a new set of jars (you can get a dozen for about $20). If you are re-using jars (like I am) you will want to use brand new lids if you are canning, or a well cleaned lid if you are just going to refrigerate.

Either way, new or used, you'll want to sterilize your jars and lids. For refrigerator pickles, a run through the dishwasher will do the job- if you are canning, you want to be extra careful, so you may want to boil the jars and lids the hard way. You can go with standard mason jars, or wide-mouth jars- either will work. Many people feel that it's easier to get the pickles out of the wide mouth jars.

So once you have your cucumbers cut into spears, and a nice sterilized jar ready, pack your cucumber spears in. The cucumbers will shrink a little as they pickle, so don't worry if it seems like you are squeezing them in too tightly. Pack them in, and make sure there is a little space at the top so you can make sure your pickling liquid will cover them completely.

Next, you'll need to set up your pickling liquid. You'll want to heat this mixture in some sort of coated metal pot- either teflon or enamel will work. Bare metal (like stainless steel or alumninum) will react with the mixture and make it cloudy- so make sure the coating is intact with no deep scratches. The mix of spices we will use is a fairly typical dill pickle mix. The critical part is the 1 to 1 ratio of vinegar and sugar, and the salt. These three things form the basic chemistry of the pickling process- the rest is flavor. Start with 1 1/2 cups of vinegar, and 1 1/2 cups of sugar. Add 1/2 teaspoon of salt. The formula I started with called for 1/2 cup of fresh dill (packed) - unfortunately, I didn't have fresh dill, so I went with 1/4 cup of dried dill (standard substitution- use half the quantity if you substitute dried herbs for fresh herbs). The rest of the mix consisted of 1/2 teaspoon of whole coriander seed, 1/2 teaspoon of celery seed, and 1/2 teaspoon of ground turmeric. The final piece is about 2 cups of thinly sliced onion (about 1 onion) - I also like pickled onions, so I kept mine probably a little more chunky than normal. Heat this mix over medium heat until all the sugar is dissolved, and the fluid is steaming, but not quite boiling.

Pour the hot pickling liquid into the jar. Be careful- it is easy to spill and burn yourself. If you're not confident about pouring, you can find canning/pickling funnels to help with this for a reasonable price. Pour enough to cover your cucumber spears, but leave a little air at the top. This is critical if you plan on canning your pickles- if you neglect to leave a little air space, you run the risk of bursting your jar when you go through the canning process. For our refrigerator pickles, simply seat the lid, and make sure it seals tightly. Let the jar cool off on the counter, then let put it into the refrigerator.

If you are canning, this is the point where you would need a large pot of boiling water- you'd put your jar(s) in the boiling water for about ten minutes, then let them cool. This process helps create a firm seal, and sterilizes the contents of the jar- making pickles you can store on a shelf without refrigerating.

Either way, your pickles will need at least a full day soaking in the pickling mix to make them ready to eat. The longer the wait, the more flavorful the pickles will be. You will get your best results if you wait about a week. The one advantage of the refrigerator pickle method is that you can open the jar and sample a pickle early- if you can them and sample a pickle, you'll have to refrigerate the whole jar. Canned pickles can keep on the shelf virtually forever, refrigerator pickles will keep in the refrigerator about two months as long as you keep them cold.

The pickles will shrink slightly, so you'll be able to extract them from the jar easily, even if you packed them in tightly. After waiting your one day minimum, your pickles will be ready to sample- and longer waits will just make them better. I couldn't wait much longer so I sampled mine as soon as the clock hit 24 hours...

The finished pickles - not very pretty, but very tasty!
The first thing I noticed was that my pickle spears seemed to have shriveled more than I would have liked, and appeared to be a little limp. I suspect that the exact mix I used may have been a little too heavy on the salt, which may have drawn too much water out of the cucumbers, so my next attempt will probably reduce the salt to 1/4 teaspoon. Surprisingly, despite appearing limp and shriveled, the pickles still had a pretty good crunch to them.

From a flavor perspective, they had everything I would expect from a dill pickle - that unique blend of tart and spicy that can only be described as "pickle-like". The dill flavor and aroma was up-front and obvious- right where it belongs- but maybe a little on the strong side. As you can see from the photos, there was a lot of excess dill clinging to the pickles that tasted good, but was a little off-putting visually. I think there was more than enough dill flavor to cut back the dill by at least 1/3 on my next attempt.

An added bonus to this pickle recipe is the onions. The bits and strands of pickled onions floating around in the pickle juice were as good as, or possibly even better than the pickles themselves. Another experiment I may try is a jar of pickled onions... that idea, I think, has a lot of potential- if I can ever finish all these cucumbers that my garden seems to be producing every few days!

No comments:

Post a Comment